Tag Archives: Surrealism

LIST CANDIDATE: WE ARE THE FLESH (2016)

Tenemos la Carne

DIRECTED BY: Emiliano Rocha Minter

FEATURING: Noé Hernández, María Evoli, Diego Gamaliel

PLOT: A teenage brother and sister find their way to the lair of a hermit, who seduces them into acting out increasingly depraved, increasingly hallucinatory scenarios.

Still from We Are the Flesh (2016)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The overall project may seem to lack much purpose, but it’s intense and uncompromising—and weird—enough to merit a look.

COMMENTS: The new year is only a few weeks old, and already we have a contender for Weirdest Movie of 2017. A demonic hermit uses two disciples—one reluctant, one willing—to transform his habitat into a womblike space where he enacts bizarre, perverse fantasies eventually incorporating sadism, rape, orgies, murder, cannibalism, and more. As the ringmaster in this cavalcade of perversions, Noé Hernández is believably crazy. He looks like he stinks, and rants like a guy you’d cross the street to avoid meeting. He projects a very specific form of charisma: like a Mexican Manson, he has a gravity capable of capturing those irretrievably lost to themselves in his orbit. “People shy from certain thoughts. Their lives are a continuous distraction from their own perversion,” the wild-eyed messiah preaches to an improbably intrigued teenage girl, while flapping his arms like a bird in the void. “Solitude drags you, forces you to come face to face with your darkest fantasies. And when nothing happens, you stop being afraid of your most grotesque thoughts.”

With siblings and a perverted Svengali, the story goes exactly where you think it will; but, incest is only the beginning. Once they indulge that taboo, all the walls come crashing down—and the plot immediately hops onto whatever crazy train it can catch, going to places you can’t possibly predict. In fact, after the strangely beautiful incest montage, shot in psychedelic thermal imaging and scored to a romantic Spanish ballad, there can hardly be said to be a plot at all, only a series of deranged, escalating provocations. (One presumes that in Catholic Mexico, the movie’s blasphemous parody of Christ—both the resurrection and the Eucharist—is the most shocking element). On a literal level, you might try to explain it all as the result of an all-purpose drug the hermit keeps in an eyedropper, which is capable of producing intoxication, serving as an antidote to his own homebrewed poisons, and possibly preserving the brains of those he’s lobotomized. More likely, the hermit simply personifies  perverse desire, and the movie is a representation of the nightmare of a narcissistic world of pure desire without taboos or boundaries. The tumbling of moral walls allows the irrational to flood in.

As shock cinema goes, Flesh displays far more artistry than most. The lighting is extraordinary—purple-lit faces in front of glowing yellow portals that serve to block, rather than lead to, the opaque outside world. These touches elevate the minimalist set into a true dream space. The music is also well-deployed, with horror-standard rumblings alternating with ironically beautiful ballads and a Bach concerto. Flesh shows the imagination of , mixed with the despairing nihilism of , in a scenario reminiscent of Salo.

As for misgivings: I wonder if Flesh has enough substance to compensate us for its unpleasantness. Late in the film, it takes a stab at social relevance, with a subversive recital of the Mexican national anthem and a paradigm-shifting final scene. But these digressions come off as afterthoughts to a movie whose main interest is to indulge its own most grotesque thoughts. And there, I wonder if the film doesn’t pull its own perverse punch. A Clockwork Orange‘s Alex was deeply chilling because he made you feel the appeal and charm of evil; the hermit here does not. He’s too clearly insane, too cartoonish in his fleshy villainy. The ominous music and horror movie atmosphere also instruct you to be repulsed rather than aroused. Despite the madman’s advice, this movie does want you to be afraid of its most grotesque thoughts. But fans of extremity cinema will—pardon the pun—eat it up.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“We Are The Flesh is a bizarrely arresting treat from an exciting new talent. It’s also just about the strangest film you’ll see this year.”–Michael Coldwell, Starburst (contemporaneous)

261. THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL (1962)

El àngel exterminador

Must See

“People always want an explanation for everything. It is the consequence of centuries of bourgeois education. And for everything for which they cannot find an explanation, they resort in the last instance to God. But what is the use of that to them? Eventually they have to explain God.”–Luis Buñuel , “My Last Sigh”

“The best explanation of this film is that, from the standpoint of pure reason, there is no explanation.”–Opening epigram to The Exterminating Angel

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Enrique Rambal, , , Lucy Gallardo, Augusto Benedico

PLOT: After an elaborate dinner, the many guests of Edmundo Nobile find themselves trapped inside a single room of the mansion; at first they stay under reasonable pretenses, but after sleeping over they become physically unable to pass the room’s threshold. As their high society ways break down from the proximity and lack of provisions, concerned police and citizens on the outside find it impossible to enter to help them. Things degenerate until they attempt a desperate gambit relying on a vision of one of the guests. Meanwhile, sheep and a bear wander around the house.

Still from The Exterminating Angel (1962)

BACKGROUND:

  • After briefly returning to his native Spain from his Mexican exile to direct Viridiana, Buñuel went back to Mexico to make The Exterminating Angel after the Vatican denounced the previous film and the Spanish banned it.
  •   Buñuel borrowed the title from a poet friend (José Bergamín) ostensibly for marketing purposes, remarking in his biography, “If I saw ‘The Exterminating Angel‘ on a marquee, I’d go see it on the spot.”
  • Despite its acclaim (both contemporaneous and otherwise), Buñuel often said he considered The Exterminating Angel a failure. Mostly, he regretted not being able to proceed along a more “cannibalistic” trajectory.
  • The dozens of repetitions found in the film greatly worried the cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, when he saw the final cut. It took Buñuel to calm him down, assuring Figueroa that it was a creative choice.
  • Won a “FIPRESCI” award at Cannes on its release.
  • While Russia at the time banned any number of films for any number of reasons, ironically, this Marxist movie rubbed Soviet officials the wrong way because the theme—not being able to leave a party—was considered anti-government.
  • The Exterminating Angel is a staple of “top films ever made” lists, including The New York Times‘ Best 1000 Movies Ever Made and Steven Jay Schneider’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
  • Stephen Sondheim has a musical based on both The Exterminating Angel and Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie in the works. British composer Thomas Adès recently adapted the movie into an opera.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Throughout The Exterminating Angel, the household’s domesticated (pet) bear herds a small clutch of sheep. Wandering around the place with impunity, a shot where the demi-flock scoot up the grand stairway, with the bear taking up the rear, sticks in the mind. The guests’ doom is mirrored by the sheep’s mindless wandering toward the great prison room, ensuring their barbaric destruction.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Dead man’s hand; symbolic tasty sheep; a sacrificial host

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A gaggle of bourgeois personages spend more and more time in close quarters with each other—they simply cannot leave the room. The strangeness of their prison is matched by the strangeness found outside: a society that at first doesn’t notice their absence, and then is unable to help them. Time skips like a scratched record, servants are uncannily eager to jump ship, a disembodied hand appears, and animal friends romp around a mansion, adding up to a fine Buñuelian omelet of social commentary and Surrealist comedy.

COMMENTS: Between his genre-establishing Un Chien Andalou up Continue reading 261. THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL (1962)

252. POSSESSION (1981)

AKA The Night the Screaming Stops

Recommended

“…Viktor Shklovsky wrote about how the job of the artist was to come up with a device that made the familiar seem strange. The ‘strangeness’ sets our brain a challenge, and the process of dealing with it is engaging – not just on an intellectual level, but an emotional one too… In Possession, Żuławski made a marital breakdown ‘strange’ by showing ‘the horror’ – this was not Scenes from a Marriage – it was something else.”–Daniel Bird

“Nothing wants to bite anymore – they want to lick.”– Andrzej Zulawski, from the Possession commentary track.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Heinz Bennent, Margit Carstensen, Carl Duering, Shaun Lawton

PLOT: Mark, an agent for some unspecified agency, returns home to his wife, Anna, and son in Berlin only to find that Anna has taken a lover. She splits her time between her home and her lover; however, Mark still wants her, causing extensive conflict between them. He uncovers a previous affair with a man named Heinrich, but she also left him for another—and finding the identity of her current lover leads to mayhem and a rising body count.

Still from Possession (1981)

BACKGROUND:

  • Andrzej Zulawski conceived Possession in the wake of several events—the collapse of his marriage to actress Małgorzata Braunek after being allowed to return to Poland from exile after the international success of 1975’s The Most Important Thing Is To Love, and the subsequent production and shutdown of On The Silver Globe and his second exile from Poland.
  • Zulawski originally pitched the film to Paramount Studio head Charlie Bluhdorn, calling it “a movie about a woman who f**ks an octopus.” They passed.
  • The film played at Cannes and Isabelle Adjani won “Best Actress,” sharing the award for her roles in both Possession and Merchant/Ivory’s Quartet.
  • The final film was chopped up by distributors. The U.S. release was notorious for being a total misrepresentation of the movie: the distributor removed about 40 minutes, reshuffled scenes, and added optical effects to play up and sell it as a horror movie. The Australian version made similar cuts. It wasn’t until 2000 that the original version was available to be seen in the U.S.
  • Possession was briefly released in the UK, but on videotape it was later banned as a “video nasty,” a classification intended for extreme horror films with no artistic merit.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a film with many memorable images, mainly close-ups of the characters in various stages of mania, the one that sticks is of Adjani’s Anna being serviced by something coiled around her… and writhing.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Pink socks; subway miscarriage; Anna’s lover

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It starts out as a domestic drama turned up to 11, which then goes up to 15. The intensity is compelling, especially when most other relationship films at the time went for quiet decorum. Possession throws all that right out the window. And then at the midway point, it drops the bottom out of expectations with the introduction of the Creature.


Possession international release trailer

COMMENTS: There seems to be no major disagreement about Possession joining a list of “weird” anything. The fur begins to fly in the Continue reading 252. POSSESSION (1981)

LIST CANDIDATE: A SNAKE OF JUNE (2002)

Rokugatsu No Hebi

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Asuka Kurosawa, Shinya Tsukamoto, Yûji Kôtari

PLOT: A sexually repressed woman is blackmailed into living out her erotic fantasies by a stalker.

Still from A Snake of June (2002)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Done in a sleazier and more straightforward style, the script’s voyeuristic hook might have led us into “erotic thriller” territory, resulting in a film destined to play “Cinemax After Dark” at 2:30 AM. But Snake is a fever dream of outsider auteur Shinya Tsukamoto, who turns it into Belle de Jour by way of Tetsuo: The Iron Man. It’s sometimes a little frustrating totry to  follow, but there is no doubt Tsukamoto’s getting freaky, and not just in the bedroom.

COMMENTS: The first half of A Snake of June is fairly conventional (at least, by our standards). Mousy Rinko answers calls at a suicide hotline. Her husband, the older Shigehiko, is a salaryman with a cleaning fetish and little time for romance. Iguchi is a depressed photographer who only takes pictures of household objects: blenders, or waffle irons. When Iguchi calls Rinko and she talks him down off the metaphorical ledge, he decides to reward her by forcing her to live out her sexual fantasies: he stalks her, takes pictures of her masturbating, and then threatens to make them public if she doesn’t dress up in a microskirt with no underwear and wander through a busy marketplace. Although the scenario seems skeevy, it shows character development on Iguchi’s part—he’s shifted his interest  from inert objects to people. He is stalking and manipulating the woman but he is not treating Rinko as an object—he fully acknowledges her humanity as he puts her through erotic exercises he genuinely believes will make her into the happier person she deserves to be.

The first half of the film is told from the perspective of Rinko, and, unlikely as the setup might be, it is presented in a straightforward fashion. Halfway through, the point-of-view shifts to hubby Shigehiko. The stalker arranges to have the neurotic husband drugged, and when he awakens he’s shown (or more likely hallucinates) an sado-erotic snuff cabaret exhibition where the performers are sealed inside tanks which slowly fill up with water, while a cone is strapped to his face, restricting his field of vision. That’s just the beginning of the new strangeness; in a third perspective shift, the narrative begins to focus on Iguchi, and we are treated to a brazen masturbation scene from Rinko (in the neverending Japanese rain, natch) and a violent confrontation between Iguchi and Shigehiko that includes an assault by a slithering phallic piece of corrugated PVC pipe (this comes from the director of Tetsuo, after all). In the end, wife and husband share a meal and make love as if none of the aforementioned weirdness ever happened. It probably never did.

Although we have tagged this movie with “black and white,” it should be noted that it the film is actually tinted a shade of blue-gray that suggests the perpetually overcast skies of Snake‘s rain-soaked Tokyo streets. Dividing the movie into a nearly conventional first half and a surreal second hemisphere that both advances and reconfigures the narrative is an interesting gambit. A Snake of June drags at times, and confuses frequently, but few who see it will forget it, or accuse it of playing it safe.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This vision includes some freakishly surreal moments… The results, while uneven, do represent a journey for the audience – exhilarating, worthwhile and memorable after the event – even if, along the way, we’re never sure exactly where we’re going to end up.”–Neil Young, Neil Young’s Film Lounge (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MEAT (2010)

Vlees

DIRECTED BY:  Victor Nieuwenhuijs, Maartje Seyferth

FEATURING: Titus Muizelaar, Nellie Benner

PLOT: An emotionally neutered detective investigates a murder at a butcher shop where all the employees have high libidos.

Still from Meat (2010)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There is no question that this is a weird one. But Meat never really matches its mystery to the grand theme or emotional resonance it’s searching for. It’s main virtue is that it’s short and sexy, making for a relatively easy watch despite its challenging narrative format.

COMMENTS: Here are some things that happen in Meat: a butcher has sex with a co-worker in a meat locker while another employee secretly videotapes it. A woman plummets to her death. The butcher is found murdered. Here are some things that may or may not happen in Meat: The woman who lives in the room above the shop is a prostitute who meets tricks there during business hours. The prime suspect is raped by a man wearing a skull mask the night of the murder. The murder investigation is conducted by the victim’s doppelganger. Here are some things that don’t happen in Meat, despite the fact that we see them: Three middle-aged customers approach the meat display case, totally nude. The detective watches man being led away from a slaughterhouse, one of them dressed like a chicken, while blood drips down his windshield. Cows, lambs and pigs find their way into the butcher shop at night and urinate on the floor.

It’s that kind of movie. After a set-up that is only marginally odd, focused more on eroticism than surrealism, the last third of the movie surrenders entirely to dream logic. Cryptic shots of a butterfly and a woman submerged in a bathtub, plus elliptical monologues about sheep-slaughtering, are spread through the early sections as harbingers of the all-out weirdness to come. Our dumpy middle-aged butcher has some sort of sexual arrangement with a woman who lives at the shop and whose main duty seems to be to sleep with all the male employees; yet, he naturally fancies the slim blond college-aged part-time worker whose short skirt is half-hidden under her floor-length butcher’s apron. He comes up to her from behind and whispers his dirty old man fantasies into her nubile ears. In the real world, his come-ons would be actionable sexual harassment; here, because they occur while the girl is breathlessly videotaping a dish full of animal organs, it’s mere sexual absurdism.

Later, the phraseology of this scene will be mirrored in the investigator’s language as he interviews the girl, now a suspect: seduction has become interrogation; desire, guilt. Meat‘s strategy is to vacillate between opposites: the body as a sexual canvas, and as a collection of organs to be hacked apart and sold; genitals as organs of pleasure, and portals for the release of bodily waste. Desire goes to war with disgust, as rationality yields to irrationality. Meat explores issues of sex, carnality and guilt—maybe with a side of vegetarianism.

After screening at a handful of European film festivals, Meat spent six years in a post-presentation, pre-distribution netherworld before Artsploitation Films picked it up for belated September 2016 DVD release. With no clear audience besides arthouse curiosity seekers, Meat is an orphan that needs your love.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…bizarre, chilling little character drama …”–Matthew Lee, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

THE PRISONER (1967-1968), PART THREE

This is Part 3 of a 3 part survey of “The Prisoner.” Part 1 can be found here, Part 2 is here.

“A Change Of Mind,” (directed by Patrick McGoohan) opens with the Prisoner confronted by thugs from the gymnasium (which is fairly typical for workout fundies). Seeing that No. 6 would rather exercise in the woods, they accuse him of being “unmutual” (not status quo) and ferociously pick a fight with him. The Prisoner reacts by beating the hell out of them. Then, like all bullies who get whupped, they go and tattle. Of course, No. 2 (played by John Sharp this week) and his gang threaten a spanking,  in the form of a lobotomy for No. 6—a literal change of mind. Unfortunately, they haven’t found out yet what they need from No. 6: why the Prisoner resigned as an agent. The solution? Make the Prisoner believe he has been lobotomized. The episode uses Rod Serling circularity, with another confrontation in the woods and a table-turning that leads to the charge of “unumutuality” going much higher.

“Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling,” (directed by Pat Jackson) is a genuine oddity in a genuinely odd series. Its contrasting textures are off-colored, with the presence of “star” McGoohan kept to a minimum. He’s hardly even in it, as he was busy filming Ice Station Zebra (1968). Of course, the production team could have simply waited for McGoohan’s return. Instead they found an opportunity for a change of pace. Whether they succeeded or not is intensely debated.

On paper, the plot sounds fatigued. Yet another mind-swapping thriller, the type that “one idea” Universal hack Curt Siodmack wrote repeatedly.  When the Colonel (Nigel Stock) arrives in the Village, he is informed by No. 2 (Clifford Evans) that a professor Seltzman (Hugo Schuster) has invented a mind-swapping machine. Unfortunately, Seltzman is missing and, apparently, once done, the process cannot be reversed, which is hardly going to stop No. 2, if it means obtaining information from the Prisoner.

Yet again, the Prisoner is abducted and drugged, only to awaken in the body of the Colonel. It doesn’t take him to long to do the math and go looking for Seltzman. Along the way, No. 6 has his only love scene in the entire series, played by Stock (because the hyper-Catholic McGoohan refused to ever do a love scene). Stock plays the Prisoner throughout most of the episode without resorting to impersonation. His performance is an effective one, matched by Evans’s charismatic No. 2.

Apparently, the script was loathed by almost everyone, and many “Prisoner” fans rank it as the low ebb of the series. There’s no denying that it doesn’t quite come together, but it is a compelling effort.

The Prisoner, "Living in Harmony"“Living in Harmony” (directed by David Tomblin) is another episode which sounds wretched and could be dubbed “the Prisoner goes west.” However, as when the original “Star Trek” crew relived the gunfight at the OK Corral (in “Spectre of the Gun,” also from 1968), the end result is among the most refreshingly ludicrous in the show’s run.

The Prisoner finds himself in the guise of a recently resigned sheriff Continue reading THE PRISONER (1967-1968), PART THREE

246. BELLADONNA OF SADNESS (1973)

Kanashimi no Beradonna

“With all of this splendid weirdness—Michelet’s occult/feminist novel, Fukai’s ravishingly beautiful, X-rated illustrations, and Satoh’s brain-shredding score—what could possibly go wrong? Everything, according to director Yamomoto.”–Dennis Bartok, explaining Belladonna of Sadness‘s commercial failure at the time of its release in the liner notes to the Cinelicious Blu-ray release.

Recommended

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Eiichi Yamamoto

FEATURING: Voices of Chinatsu Nakayama, Aiko Nagayama, , Katsuyuki Itô, Masaya Takahashi

PLOT: In medieval Europe, peasants Jean and Jeanne go to their local Lord to bless their unconsummated marriage, but the royals gang-rape the bride instead because Jean cannot afford the outrageous matrimonial tax. Later, Jeanne is visited by a demon who promises to give her power to oppose the Lord’s might and get revenge. At first she resists, but as the Lord’s outrages mount, she finally gives herself to Satan fully and becomes a powerful witch.

Still from Belladonna of Sadness (1973)

BACKGROUND:

  • This film was the third part of a trilogy of adult animation features on Western themes commissioned by legendary anime pioneer Osama Tezuka (famous for the television manga adaptations “Astro Boy” and “Kimba the White Lion”) and his Mushi studio. The first in the series was 1969’s erotic version of “The Arabian Tales,” A Thousand & One Nights (also directed by Yamamoto). Nights was a commercial hit (although it remains unavailable on home video), so the studio went ahead with Cleopatra in 1970 (which Yamamoto co-directed with Tezuka). Cleopatra was a commercial and artistic flop, but the studio went ahead with Belladonna of Sadness anyway. Tezuka left Mushi before the final film was completed, and Belladonna bombed even harder than Cleopatra. Mushi went bankrupt soon after. Belladonna was exhibited in only a handful of lower echelon theaters in Japan and only lightly released outside of that country until 2015’s rediscovery and reappraisal.
  • The unlikely source material for Belladonna of Sadness was Jules Michelet’s 1862 non-fiction book “Le sorciere” (AKA “Satanism and Witchcraft“), a sympathetic treatment which cast the practice of witchcraft as a protest against the feudal system and the power of the Church.
  • “Belladonna” literally means “beautiful woman” in Italian, but it is also the name of a toxic hallucinogenic plant thought to have been used in ancient witchcraft rituals.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Without a doubt, the initial rape scene. Although the movie contains shocking, unforgettable, wild and weird imagery throughout, the expressionistic violation of Jeanne, showing her being split in twain like a wishbone as her crotch emits a bloody geyser that morphs into crimson bats who fly away, was the only one that made me mutter out loud “wow”!

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Bloody rape bats; Satan is a dick; surrealist daisy chain orgy

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Belladonna of Sadness is like watching Saturday morning cartoons mixed with high art mixed with hentai, laced with acid. It’s some damned thing that you’ve never seen before.


U.S. release trailer for Belladonna of Sadness

COMMENTS: We a huge debt of gratitude to whoever’s idea it was Continue reading 246. BELLADONNA OF SADNESS (1973)

LIST CANDIDATE: COLLECTIVE: UNCONSCIOUS (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Lily Baldwin, Frances Bodomo, Daniel Patrick Carbone, Josephine Decker, Lauren Wolkstein

FEATURING: Will Blomker, Ryan Cassata, Frank Mosley, Tonya Pinkins
PLOT: In this experimental compilation, five filmmakers adapt each other’s dreams into short films.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: As both a film depicting dreams and as a formal experiment, the project presents a pressing case for inclusion on the list of the weirdest films ever made. There are a number of arresting images within this film and some truly bizarre moments.

COMMENTS: Dreams have always proved a tantalizing subject for filmmakers. Arriving from the unfettered unconscious mind with surreal imagery and associations to codify our thoughts, feelings and memories, dreams have forever enticed filmmakers to realize these bewildering experiences on screen. However, translating this phenomenon presents a number of challenges. One is budgetary, because of the opulent settings and fantastical creatures that can be found in a dream. Another is sensory: despite film’s ability to engross us it remains an outside object, never as immersive as the internal, subjective experience of dreaming.

Successful translators of the experience, such as , recognize the limitations of film immersion and focus on pacing and juxtaposition of image and sound to recreate the atmosphere and “feel” of dreams. Surrealism as an artistic movement is deeply tied to the unconscious and dreams, so it is hardly surprising that one other successful interpreter is Surrealist filmmaker , who overcame budgetary restraints through jarring combinations of everyday objects and people in unconventional ways.

Film compilations also come with their own separate challenges. Unless there is a strong through line each segment will have a different tone and pace, and invariably some episodes will be more satisfying than others. Throw in some deeply personal dreams as subject matter and you could have a hotchpotch of cinema that doesn’t gel together as a whole. Despite the technical sophistication and invention of each filmmaker—none of whom are familiar to me, so I can’t comment on the clash/serendipitous mix of subject and filmmaking styles within—I’m afraid this is the case here.

The film opens with its linking device, a man addressing the camera and attempting to hypnotize us, luring us to sleep and imploring us to lower our resistance, as dream logic demands. It is an effective device to prep us for the experience, if, like most wraparounds, narratively weak on its own. There follows some pretty if perfunctory animation from Maya Edelman before the film begins proper with arguably its most successful segment, “Black Soil, Green Grass,” directed by Daniel Patrick Carbone from a dream by Lauren Wolkstein. Combining Lynch and Buñuel’s techniques, it successfully creates a surreal, dream-like atmosphere through unusual juxtapositions of the everyday: a watchtower that inexplicably pipes a recording of a man counting sheep through loudspeakers, a man encircled Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: COLLECTIVE: UNCONSCIOUS (2016)

DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: THE ANIMATED FILMS OF SUZAN PITT

A promenade through the oeuvre of animator is like taking part in a bohemian cavalcade disguised as a dollhouse, awash with luminous colors and energetic imagery, while grinding atonal music from a Holly Hobbie record player. She’s a balls-to-the-wall art school darling; unassuming, yet filled to the brim with edifying duplicity. Pitt inspires one to glean from life what one gleans from her art.

Her background is in painting and, as she explains in the aptly titled documentary Suzan Pitt: Persistence of Vision (2006), Pitt explains that she realized that the figures of her canvases had an implied history and future and began processing the idea of “what would happen if this moved over here? And that moved up there? Then that would be a different thing. There would be a passage of time.” The end result of that process was a painter interning in animation. Pitt’s first credited short is Jefferson Circus Songs (1975). Already in this first effort, she emanates an idiosyncratic abjection that spikes into mystical farce. Inundating us with a smorgasbord of imagery (live action, stop motion, and willfully rudimentary animation that includes harlequins, Siamese twins, geishas, an adolescent nurse with mop hair, Christmas lights, Easter eggs,  and mythological creatures), Pitt introduces us to a vision which repudiates rationality and judgment. The threat of an overwhelming seriousness is dissipated as the filmmaker unveils her sense of self-depreciating humor. Yale Marshall’s tinkly score compliments the chaos.

In her second film, Asparagus (1979, available on DVD and on Fandor.com), Pitt again displays a shrewd awareness in juxtaposing music with imagery. Her composer of choice here is Richard Teitelbaum, who studied under one of the 20th century’s most vital composers: Luigi Nono. Asparagus also features the music of prolific and prominent free jazz artist Steve Lacy (who has worked with too many artists of note to name, including Carla Bley). Together, the aural language of Teitelbaum and Lacy create an ideal dialogue with Pitt’s imaged world of a phallic asparagus. Pitt describes her work as “a rich pastiche of imagery that folds together and becomes  a running image.” The imagery, once internalized (from the way we manipulate and arrange images from childhood) is put together and connected to a “world of sense-making.” It follows Jung’s idea of pregnant imagery and she describes it as a “daydream that you can come into at any point,” being a “complex circle.” Pitt, leading an exquisite assemblage of artists, produces a provocative, erotically charged short that beams and steams absurdity with septic glitter in the most edifying way. Although as personal as a poem, Asparagus rightly resonated strongly with both critics and audiences, winning festivals the world over. Of all Pitt’s films, it is Asparagus that invites the most commentary,  a rare example of a wholly successful independent film, which is covered in detail here already as a List Candidate.

In addition to her animated film work, Pitt is a professor who has done work in murals and theater design, along with actively showing her paintings and wood constructions in gallery showings, which explains the almost twenty year gap between films. Compared to the first two films, Joy Street (1995, on DVD and Fandor) is almost rhapsodic and narrative. Opening with imagery which conjures up visions from silent film, Joy Street wistfully flows into ecstatic, bonbon-hued colors, burning with ravenous anecdotes and music by Roy Nathanson from the Jazz Passengers. Although Pitt is often referred to as a woman animator, one would be hard-pressed to locate a male counterpart, which nullifies such categories. Her acerbic candor is probably never more accessible than here.

El Doctor (2006, on DVD and Fandor), written by Blue Kraning, is the first Pitt film with dialogue. It is the story of an alcoholic doctor, along with a gargoyle and south of the border art, inspired by Pitt’s own trip to the doctor. In her fourth film, Pitt captures the flavor of (what is to us) an eroticized, dissonant Catholicism, the Hispanic culture it influences, and outsider artist Jose Guadalupe Posada. Commendably, Pitt doesn’t subscribe to the usual bathos associated with naive art.

The half hour, self-coiling documentary Suzan Pitt: Persistence Of Vision is directed by Blue Kraning and Laura Kraning. I’m glad it exists as a proclamation reflecting on Pitt’s past, film techniques, and artistic worldview. Loving someone like Pitt goes beyond perception. The world needs her, and this primer is highly recommended viewing.

Pitt can also be seen as one of the smokers in James Benning’s 20 Cigarettes (2010) (sadly, they never called me).

Inspired by an ashtray and H.P. Lovecraft, Visitation (2012, also on Fandor) is cartoonish erudition, gestural and unforgettably hand painted. Juxtaposed to the music of Jules Massenet, Visitation is a monochromatic vision. Christ have mercy! It crosses every border and makes you fall in love with Pitt’s artistic voice all over again: configuring , transforming, reminding us that her first ventures into film were in 8mm. Archaic, postmodern, jazzy, operatic, with images ranging from the Spanish inquisition to the witch of the forest, it’s the kind of film one imagines film should be like.

At seven minutes, Pinball (2013) is the briefest Pitt film to date and one of the most startling. Juxtaposed to the preexisting 1952 revision of “Ballet Mecanique” by the bad boy of music, George Antheil (a beloved Surrealist), Pinball is a art film connoisseur’s orgasm. I was immediately reminded of John Zorn, Roy Lichtenstein, and Phillip Guston (he of the Morton Feldman tribute). Upon seeing it, my wife said, “I see you found another soul companion” (the other being ). Pinball shows exactly the mental images I conjured up on first reading of Antheil’s premiere of “Ballet Mecanique,” with Andre Breton, , and on the stage pistol-whipping protestors.

This is the world of Suzan Pitt, and we are the better for her.