Tag Archives: Surrealism

SLAMDANCE 2021: APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MAN UNDER TABLE (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Noel David Taylor

FEATURING: Noel David Taylor, John Edmund Parcher, Ben Babbitt, Katy Fullan

PLOT: A nameless screenwriter tries to write a movie (the movie we’re watching), while his peers’ careers seem to be taking off faster than his.

Still from Man Under Table (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: This microbudget meta-movie about a nameless screenwriter unabashedly gazes at its navel until that navel becomes a self-contained universe teeming with surrealism and satire.

COMMENTS: Ever since 8 1/2, directors have been making movies about the trials and tribulations of being themselves making a movie. It’s an ambitious undertaking, fraught with pretension, but the subgenre is not tapped out yet. Man Under Table relocates the conceit to a new milieu: the fringes of the indie movie scene, a world which itself exists on the fringes of Hollywood. It’s a purgatory for creatives. Everybody urgently wants rush out a movie about “identity politics” or “fracking” or, preferably, the intersection of the two—but they actually spend most of their time in bars, at parties, or in men’s rooms, talking about their hopefully soon-in-development projects. The film doesn’t really have much of an idea how to end itself, and it plays around with some intriguing possible plot angles (such as the suggestion that another character is the real author of the screenplay) only to abandon them. But that abandonment itself is both a meta-joke and an honest reflection of the script: the movie consistently, from being to end, does not know what it is, and it is all about its own lack of insight.

Such a premise would be insufferable if played straight; it can only work as a comedy. And Man Under Table has a nasty comic bite, with the movie itself, and its screenwriter, as much the target of the satire as the phonies who hang out in this plague-ridden alternate Los Angeles. Our nameless (itself a plot point) antihero is writing a movie, but he spends most of his free time bragging to all his acquaintances about how he’s writing a movie. He’s arrogant, short-tempered, neurotic, presumptuous, whiny, and obviously angry at himself but taking it out on everyone around him. His targets include screenwriting rival Ben (who looks a lot like David Foster Wallace stripped of his bandana), up-and-coming director Jill Custard, a vapid but omnipresent YouTuber, and a pair of buzzword-devouring—producers? Agents? He’s also taking advantage of Gerald, an older man with money who has an idea for a movie but needs help with the “technical part” (i.e., writing it), and who insists that there shouldn’t be any of that “modern movie gay stuff.”  You personally don’t know any characters like this, and characters like this could in fact never exist, yet you believe they are caricatures of real people—or at least, that they’re caricatures of real caricatures.

Man Under Table plays out on minimal sets—a bathroom, a barroom, an apartment, a warehouse, a blank void—and moves from scene to scene with little flow or causality. The order of incidents could be shuffled about without making much difference; it’s set in a netherworld of eternal project development. “This isn’t a movie, it’s just random scenes about some guy,” our screenwriter complains midway through. At one point, he finds himself unwittingly cast in—and cut from—someone else’s project, which breaks out around him as he’s trying to order a beer. The movie also draws attention to its own movieness by introducing deliberate continuity errors (a disappearing drink becomes a running gag).

Where Man Under Table shines, and sometimes becomes laugh-out-loud funny, is in writer/director Taylor’s charmingly obnoxious performance as his own alter-ego, and especially in his ear for cutting dialogue that exposes the shallow ambitions of his characters. His generic pitches to the movie-producing couple are brilliant (he throws the word “content” in at random and their eyes get huge). A parody of a competitor’s production shows a knack for capturing ridiculously poetic indie dialogue (“I always imagined that leaving prison was like being ripped from the womb all over again—you emerge screaming, wet, and pale.”) Other great lines include “I didn’t really want to talk about it either, I was just asking you questions I wanted you to ask me” and “I’d like to be suicidal again, but I can’t even get there with all the garbage you’re saying.” Some of the dialogue even achieves poignancy: “Sometimes I get excited about all the possibilities there are, until I realize none of them are available to me.”

As boorish and self-absorbed as our hero is, you gradually begin to feel for him. He is trapped in an absurd, dystopian world peopled entirely by poseurs, a universe that seemingly exists only to crush his dreams. Oh yeah, and then there’s all the weird stuff that happens to his character in the movie, too.

Man Under Table is currently playing Slamdance (online).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This film is definitely weird.”–Lorry Kitka, Film Threat

11*. THE WOLF HOUSE (2018)

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La casa lobo

“Like in dreams, where one person can assimilate the attributes of another, the story and characters of the film take on different materialities. All of the changes in the house, characters and objects emphasize the permanent under-construction reality of the film.”–from the director’s statement to The Wolf House

DIRECTED BY: Joaquín Cociña, Cristóbal León

FEATURING: Voices of Amalia Kassai, Rainer Krause

PLOT: A prologue purports to be a documentary on a Chilean commune founded by Germans; we are told that the film that follows has been restored from their vaults. Those reels tell the story of Maria, a girl who strays from their community and finds herself hiding from a wolf at a mysterious house in the woods. There, she finds and nurtures two piglets, who gradually turn human.

Still from The Wolf House (Las Casa Lobo) (2018)

BACKGROUND:

  • The scenario was inspired by Colonia Dignidad, a colony founded by ex-Nazis in Chile. The colony was often described as a cult and was insulated from its neighbors by barbed-wire fences. From 1961 to 1996 it was led by Paul Schäfer, a refugee wanted for child molestation in West Germany. The colony became the subject of dark rumors among the locals, rumors which were validated after escapees told tales of systematic child abuse inside the compound. The cult survived by allying with Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who used the colony as a detention and torture camp.
  • Cociña and León had worked together, and sometimes separately, on a number of award-winning animated shorts before tackling this, their first feature film. The Wolf House took five years to complete.
  • Cociña and León took their sets on the road and worked on The Wolf House at various museums across the world, where visitors watched as they created the animation.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Due to the sheer volume and continually shifting nature of The Wolf House‘s liquid visuals, picking a single image is an imposing task. We will go with the grayscale eyeball that materializes on the house’s wall like a sketch drawn by an invisible pencil, complete with a semitransparent eyelid, a pulsating pupil, and the ability to shake the furniture with its glance.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Pigs with human hands; magic Aryan honey

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Wolf House‘s experimental animation traps us in a constantly shifting nightmare dollhouse: Maria merges into and out of the walls, conjures human features for her pigs, and even the paintings on the walls can’t keep their shape for more than a second or two. The fascist-fairy tale tone is dreamily calm, and inescapably horrific.


Original trailer for The Wolf House

COMMENTS: It’s probably enlightening to have some background Continue reading 11*. THE WOLF HOUSE (2018)

CAPSULE: LA CRAVATE (1957)

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DIRECTED BY: , Saul Gilbert, Ruth Michelly

FEATURING: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Raymond Devos

PLOT: A man patronizes a shop that sells human heads, trying to find one which will please his beloved.

Still from La Cravate (1957)

COMMENTS: It took me a while to realize that the baby-faced, clean-shaven, curly-headed protagonist of “La Cravate” was actually director Alejandro Jodorowsky as a young man. The director’s early style, as seen in this mime piece, is almost as unrecognizable as his face; but look hard and you can see the seeds of themes and styles that would haunt his later work, in primitive and innocent forms. There may be none of the shock imagery, no blood or nudity or deformity, no pools of bunny blood or lactating hermaphrodites; but the theatricality, the spirit of the circus, the focus on archetypes rather than characters, the eyes turned always towards the strange, all are here in germinal form.

Created as a 28-year old expatriate studying pantomime in Paris, “La Cravate” is just about exactly the kind of production you’d expect from someone who was palling up with avant-gardists and André Breton while interning with . It’s essentially a silent film, with a soundtrack supplied mostly by calliope and accordion. Like a collection of s and s, the characters communicate humorously and non-verbally. Jodorwosky’s rival’s arrogance is obvious from his dismissive glances and the way he slides in front of the slimmer man to gaze into a shop window, forcing Jodorowsky to keep peeking over and around his broad frame. Alternating smiles and scowls, his inamorata jerks Jodorowsky backwards and forwards like a hooked fish on a line. The characters act in front of painted backdrops representing both the interiors and city streets. From the beginning, Jodorowsky is utterly uninterested in realism as a style, even if the conventional theatricality here isn’t as unique and radical a break from norms as the surreality of his successive works would come to be.

Since the plot involves a literal head shop where noggins can be swapped out at will, the story is macabre, but whimsically so. This short might delight children, which is something that can’t be said for the rest of Jodorowsky’s corpus. Although the director’s future mystical/philosophical preoccupations don’t show up here, the scenario toys lightly with the concept of identity. Once the protagonist’s head is (willingly) detached, has he been split in two? The head seems perfectly happy perched on the shopkeeper’s mantle, where he can play fruit checkers by nodding his approval of the appropriate move, and serenade his owner with a recorder sonata in the evening. 1. When his rival’s head is placed on his old body, it continues to try to seduce the cold woman, then shows buyer’s remorse and longs for reunion with its original face. If anything, the main personality seems to inhere in the costume, symbolized by the long purple cravate (which very nearly ends up doing duty as a noose). Weird stuff, when you think about it, although the whole scenario slides through the mind casually as a charmingly cartoonish fancy.

“La Cravate” was inspired by a Thomas Mann story. Co-star Raymond Devos went on to become a successful French comedian (even making an appearance in Pierrot le Fou). The film was once believed to be lost, but a print was discovered in 2006. You can only find it as an extra on Jodorowsky box sets.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This odd comedy manages to incorporate a bit of the absurd and the surreal on a light level.”–Adrian Halen, HorrorNews.net (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “quirkdee” with a simple “its AJ’s first nuff said.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020 APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: UNDERGODS (2020)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Chino Moya

FEATURING: Johann Myers, Géza Röhrig, and ensemble cast

PLOT: “K” and “Z” drive their van around a clapped-out shell of a city collecting dead bodies and telling each other about their dreams.

Still from Undergods (2020)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: The various stories in Undergods interlock with a dreamy (at times, literally) logic worthy of Luis Buñuel. The various future-creepy scenarios are haunting, unsettling, and puzzling, but anchored by two of the most pleasant corpse-haulers one could hope to meet.

COMMENTS: Only the most fragile of barriers protect civilization as we know it today form the looming dystopia of tomorrow. Undergods two guides, body collectors “K” and “Z,” illustrate this point through their narrative dreams, which occasionally bump into reality and each other. Our affable van drivers share a camaraderie forged by their grisly work and offset by their friendly banter and shared can of rum. Moya’s stories unfold and unsteady us in the finest tradition of H.G. Wells, George Orwell, Phillip K. Dick, and the Black Mirror television series.

Undergods opens with an ill-boding narrative about a mysterious 11th-floor neighbor, Harry, who is locked out of his apartment and crashes with Ron and Ruth for the weekend, distressing the former and romancing the latter. After a bender, Ron encounters the apartment’s superintendent and learns that he and Ruth are presently the building’s only occupants. Harry is a charlatan. Ron and Harry scuffle in the elevator. The superintendent begins a tour, opening the door to a father and daughter prospective tenants with Ron’s corpse on the floor.

And so it goes in Undergods. That segment segues into a bedtime story being told by that father to his daughter, a story that itself segues back into the world of van-men K and Z. Like a game of “Sammy the Snake,” the chain of narratives grows and twists until, Ouroboros-style, it feeds back into to the conversation about dreams. The vignettes are invariably sad. Perhaps the happiest event is Dominic’s promotion to “head engineer”–which is small comfort, seeing as his wife’s first husband, presumed dead fifteen years prior, has just been released from a prison facility (found in K’s and Z’s milieu) and now she wants to leave him (Dominic, that is, not her recently returned husband). Undergods‘ plot is just begging for a diagram; but unfortunately I don’t make art, I review it.

Even before the first fully-fleshed story unfolds, the dystopia is firmly established. I don’t know what wreck of an old Soviet town Moya filmed in, but it is beautifully run-down and oozing with creepy grandeur. Ashy snow (or snowy ash) falls continually over the nearly-abandoned streets. The film score feels lifted from an early John Carpenter movie, providing further alienation whenever the electro-pop tones sound off. Undergods never seems to stop moving forward, until we find we never left the van. That’s all right: it’s scary outside, and K and Z have rum to share.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Chino Moya’s feature debut is a haunting, almost impenetrable film, one billed as a dark fantasy but that in reality resists categorization. It will leave you with more questions than answers, but if you let it suck you into its strange world, you might not end up minding that.” –Thomas O’Connor, Tilt Magazine (festival screening)