FEATURING: Takahiro Satô, Satomi Tezuka, Tadanobu Asano, Maya Banno, Tatsuya Gashûin, Tomokazu Miura, Ikki Todoroki, Anna Tsuchiya
PLOT: A Taste of Tea follows the Haruno family living in rural Japan. The young son has his first crush; the young daughter has a giant doppelganger only she can see; the mother is attempting a comeback in her career as an anime artist; the father is a hypnotist who sends his subjects on psychedelic trips; and a visiting uncle is still melancholy from a romance that ended years ago. A grandfather with a thick gray unibrow and a permanent cowlick watches over the clan while practicing strange poses and singing nonsense songs.
The title may come from a quote by the ancient Chinese poet Lu Tong, who said, “I care not a jot for immortal life, but only for the taste of tea.”
Hideaki Anno (of “Neon Genesis” series fame) appears in a cameo as the anime director.
This was Katsuhito Ishii‘s third feature film, but the first to attract much attention outside Japan. It played at Cannes and won awards at smaller festivals. Ishii had just come off directing the animated sequences for Quentin Tarantino‘s Kill Bill. His next project, 2004’s Funky Forest, was even weirder and more random than Tea.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Little Sachicko’s giant double, who silently and mysteriously watches her as she goes about her daily routine.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Forehead train; giant doppelganger; egg-head yakuza
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Katsuhito Ishii revamps the least weird genre of cinema, the familial drama, with gently surreal CGI and a narrative that wanders off into mildly scatological yakuza ghost stories, psychedelic hypnotism, and in-progress anime rushes, all watched over by a giant mute schoolgirl.
Not only is Judex (1916) one of cinema’s earliest serials, but it’s also one of the earliest superhero films, if not the first. (1913’s Fantomas, to be reviewed next week, also featured the first celluloid supervillain.) It’s also considerably better than anything that came out of the superhero serial craze of the 1940s. The difference is Louis Feuillade, who directs with enthusiasm and creativity. He may have had something to prove; the director had come under intense criticism for glorifying crime in both Fantomas and 1915’s Les Vampires. With its cloaked avenger (René Cresté), Judex (translated as “justice”) is an enjoyable penance. Viewers unfamiliar with the character and film will immediately notice Judex is a precursor to the Shadow, and especially to Batman, as created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane in 1939. Judex is a caped vigilante with a secret identity and something like a Batcave for a lair. He is also unfathomably wealthy, which gifts him access to unlimited crime-fighting gadgetry. As enjoyable as it is, there is also an interesting Freudian undercurrent in the making of Judex, one of which Feuillade was most likely unconscious. In his act of contrition for making the sinful life glamorous, Feuillade’s instinct is to take Musidora, the exotic female lead of Les Vampires, and transform her into a secondary villainess. The 1915 mindset inherently equated the feminine with sin. More even than in the previous serials, Judex finds Feuillade in full myth-making mode and mythological deities are, to the bourgeoisie, masculine. We’ve sure a come long way in 103 years.
As entertaining as Judex is, it is the least of Feulliade’s serials. Like Les Vampires, at 5 hours, it is not intended to be watched in a single sitting. (In 1963, Georges Franjou made a superior 100-minute remake, which is available on a Criterion Collection Blu-ray). While the lightening of the violence and eroticism from Les Vampires is a loss, Judex has plenty going for it. It confirms that cinema’s first major serialist was its sole master.
One improvement is more natural, less silent-film-stylized acting. It is divided into 12 chapters, and, like its predecessors, it does not end on cliffhangers per se, but nonetheless will inevitably lure the viewer back. Another plus is cinematography that, while still stationary, is a notch above previous efforts.
The plot is simple, but concrete: a reworking of “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Advanced character development, rare for the period, transcends the plot. The influential and corrupt banker Favraux (Louis Leubas) robs the Judex family of much dyed green paper. In retaliation, Judex dons a disguise and threatens Favraux with destruction (just as in “Don Giovanni” or “Carmen”) at the stroke of midnight, unless he repents and give the money to charity. Being the superhero he is, Judex is weighed down by his conscience, but that doesn’t stop him from cruising the Paris suburbs with his pack of canines, who actually do most of the fighting for him.
Naturally, there are complications: a succubus villain Diana Monti (Musidora, who still gets a scene in black undies), a delightfully bumbling detective (Marcel Levesque, who seems a model for Inspector Clouseau), a sidekick named the Licorice Kid (Bout-de-Zan), and Favraux’s widowed daughter Jacqueline Aubry (Yvette Andreyor) who wants to right daddy’s wrongs, and manages to win our hero’s heart.
For all his villainy, Favraux has redeeming qualities. Jacqueline has complex feelings regarding Judex as vigilante, and she is no easy conquest. While Cresté is a squared jaw superhero prototype, he is less assured than Bruce Wayne in the ladies’ department and, unlike the mysterious protagonist of the Franjou remake, has a tragic backstory that grounds him in a moral dilemma (complicated even more by his falling in love with his enemy’s daughter, which inspires a belief in the redemption of villains). The doomed Musidora is pure evil (so adept at it that we hope against hope that she’ll slaughter her nemesis), but we do not see enough of her. As primitive as it is (with mawkish, melodramatic scenes and awkward pacing), Judex is also paradoxically contemporary in its pulp innovation. Although lacking the deadpan proto-Surrealism of Fantomas and Les Vampires, Judex is still an agile and charismatic serial, wrapped in an impressively glamorous WWI era package that is equal parts action, mystery, hypnosis, and comedy, with enough double-crosses, twists, and daring escapes for genre junkies.
Released on home video by Flicker Alley, Judex has been restored with a superb musical score by Robert Israel, and a valuable making-of documentary and informative booklet by historian Jan-Christopher Horak.
Andre Breton was among the Surrealists who considered Louis Feuillade as one of their own. The silent serial filmmaker probably never heard of the term (he died in 1925, as the movement was in its infancy), and likely would have disavowed it and continued cranking out his serials, oblivious to just how weird they are. Feuillade directed 700 films. Of course, most of these are shorts, and are lost. Although his work ranged from comedies to Bible dramas, Feuillade’s reputation today rests on three pulpy silent serials: Fantomas (1913), Les Vampires (1915), and Judex (1916).
A few years ago, Les Vampires, the most famous of the three, was found (after being considered lost for years), restored and rediscovered. Kino’s Blu-ray edition is exemplary, as usual, and the way to go.
A bit about Feuillade: his parents sent him to seminary in hopes he that he would become a priest. That didn’t happen, but that Catholic experience is credited with his late Gothic style. He showed an early interest in literature and drama, worked in vaudeville, married, struggled before success making films for the Gaumont studios, lived in the suburbs, and was a workaholic. In other words, he was unremarkable—except for his trilogy of serials, which influenced both Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock. The phenomenal success of Fantomas took both Feuillade and the studio by surprise. It is amusing that while that film is considered his first masterpiece, Feuillade himself wasn’t aware of it, and quickly set to work on the followup Les Vampires for one reason—money.
When Les Vampires was released on home video, many horror fans were disappointed, thinking it was going to be about bloodsuckers. Rather, it’s a crime melodrama about a crepuscular criminal gang, dubbed “the Vampires,” led by femme fatale Irma Vep (Musidore, the stage name of actress Jeanne Roques, who also starred in Judex). With large black eyes, skin-tight black leotards, and a sinister bewitching charisma, Musidore easily steals the film as a batwoman/catwoman/ succubus. The fact that the protagonists are all dullards makes it easier for Musidore to stand out. Les Vampires upset the censors at the time, who briefly banned it for glamorizing crime (thankfully, it’s guilty as hell of the charges).
Naturally, Vampires is also paced like the serials that followed it. Although they do not end in cliffhangers per se, each episode is designed to bring the viewer back to the plot. Feuillade’s serials weren’t shown weekly, but were released irregularly (Les Vampires appeared over a six-month period). For all of their primitive flaws, Feuillade’s trilogy of serials are probably the best of that genre cinema has produced. Most people cite The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), with its amiable lead (Tom Tyler) and tongue-in-cheek approach, as the best serial of the genre’s 1940s heyday. It undoubtedly is, but it’s not saying much, and can’t compare to the Feuillade;s work in the 1910s. It’s the archaic, Gothic, otherworldly quality that sets Les Vampires apart from the watered down serial genre as we came to know it. Feuillade is an essential antidote for the weird movie fan who think he/she has seen everything.
Les Vampires is divided into ten episodes, beginning with “The Severed Hand.” Reporter Philippe Guerande (Edouard Mathe) vows to track down the Vampire ring. We never once root for him, or even his comic sidekick reporter Philippe Guerande (Edouard Mathe). Feuillade deftly balances pulpy luridness, surreal slapstick, and gritty realism (the serial was shot in the back alleys of Paris). Although the early episodes are too much Mathe and not enough Musidora, she still has a marvelously compelling balletic sequence in episode two. Les Vampires is undeniably bogged down, with nearly all the co-stars living up to the hyper-styilzed silent film acting cliches, but Musidora is the engaging exception, and her cult status is easily cemented.
It is with Episode 5, “Dead Man’s Escape,” that Les Vampires kicks in and lives up to its reputation as a carnal cinematic comic book. One of the key appeals in the film’s aesthetic is the fact that a considerable amount of it was improvised, which gives it an “anything goes” atmosphere and brings a consistent element of genuine surprise, which no later serial managed.
Like most serials, Les Vampires is primarily a chase spectacle, but the streets of WWI-ravaged France imbue every frame, every action, with a sense of dread. Torture, secret passages, secret identities, hidden tunnels, portable cannons, poison gas, shootouts, theft, invisible ink, on-stage murders, hideouts, rooftop escapes, slyly named antagonists (e.g. “Satanas”), decapitations, hypnosis, rival gangs, bombings, alchemy, and anarchy set the stage for an entire genre; but Les Vampires is far more violent and—with Musidora—more erotic than the male-oriented superhero-styled serials of the talkies. It took a female lead, and a naive surrealist silent filmmaker, to show everyone else how to to do it right. Les Vampires is a tad too long, and shouldn’t be watched in a single setting. Nor, as one of the silent era’s certified masterpieces, should it be missed. You may never want reality from a film again.
“Late one night, down in my parents’ split level suburban basement, channel-surfing the old-fashioned way, I hit my first taste of Quay— like an electric shock—like nothing I’d ever seen. The mystery of the Quay Brothers got its hooks into me. I spent two years wondering what the hell I’d seen.”–Christopher Nolan on his first viewing of “Street of Crocodiles”
PLOT: Eerie reminiscences unfold when a gaunt man is brought to life after a globule of spittle activates a machine. He explores dusty, encrusted back streets and shop fronts teeming with rusted machines while being followed by a young boy. At length, a quartet of funereal tailors offers him a refashioning of uncertain merit.
“Street of Crocodiles” is inspired by a short story (and story collection of the same name) by Bruno Schulz. It was financed by the British Film Institute, which produced and distributed the Quay’s early works. The BFI insisted that the film be based on a literary source as a condition for funding.
The final (and only) narration in “Street of Crocodiles” is voiced by Leszek Jankowski, the film’s composer and a collaborator of the Quays.
The Quay Brothers style in general, and “Street of Crocodiles” in particular, influenced many music videos; for example, Nine Inch Nails’ Closer (directed by Mark Romanek).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: During the twenty-one minutes of the film, the only “disposable” image is perhaps that of the live actor entering the opening frame and counting some unseen items on the ceiling. Virtually everything else sticks out like a rusty thumb. Forced as I am to choose, I’ll plump for the “memory inducement” sequence during which everything goes backwards as the protagonist (played by a marionette) peers through a square peephole. Ice cubes rise from a trapdoor, having un-melted; whispering seeds of a ripe dandelion reassemble into their fragile orb; and even the pointless workings of the rubber-band “Bachelor Machine” flip into reverse.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Street of Crocodiles checks off a lot of boxes for a general “weird” survey: creepy visuals, stop-motion, dissonant score, defiantly vague plot-line, and pirouetting tailors. It’s hard to put it in words, as you might have guessed, but this is a Weird one. If you’ve seen anything like it since you first watched it, it’s probably because you just re-watched it.
“Chance governs all things. Necessity, which is far from having the same purity, comes only later. If I have a soft spot for one of my movies, it would be for The Phantom of Liberty, because it tries to work out just this theme.”–Luis Buñuel
PLOT: The Phantom of Liberty has no straightforward plot, but moves between vignettes through various linking mechanisms. The opening, about Napoleon’s troops desecrating a church, turns out to be a story being read by a nanny; the child she is watching is given “dirty” photographs by a suspicious lurker, then her father has strange dreams which he relates to his doctor, whose nurse interrupts their conversation to ask for time off to visit her sick father, and so on… Subsequent stories involve the nurse spending a night at an inn with strange characters, a professor who lectures to a group of gendarmes, a “missing” girl, a sniper killing random pedestrians, and a police prefect who gets a call from beyond the grave.
The title was suggested by a line from the Communist Manifesto: “…a spectre [translated in French as fantôme] is haunting Europe, the spectre of Communism…” Substituting “liberty” for “Communism” is typical of Phantom‘s process of reversing our expectations to shock us out of our complacency.
The film was co-written with Buñuel‘s late-career collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière, the fifth of the six scripts they wrote together. They devised the scenario by telling each other their dreams each morning.
This was Buñuel‘s second-to-last film, in a career that lasted nearly fifty years. He was 74 at the time of release.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The famous toilet/dinner reversal scene, which, while not at all explicit, is one of the few moments that still has the power to shock modern viewers, simply on the strength of its revolutionary idea.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Jealous statue; emu in the night; commode party
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Angry statues, wandering emus, gambling monks, a celebrity sniper, and assorted perverts jostle up against each other in Luis Buñuel‘s penultimate filmed dream, perhaps the most purely Surrealist effort of his late career.
Short clip from The Phantom of Liberty (in French)
Le testament d’Orphée, ou ne me demandez pas pourquoi!
“Man seeks to escape himself in myth, and does so by any means at his disposal. Drugs, alcohol, or lies. Unable to withdraw into himself, he disguises himself. Lies and inaccuracy give him a few moments of comfort.”–Jean Cocteau, Diary of an Unknown
PLOT: Time-traveling poet Jean Cocteau visits a professor and asks to be shot with his faster-than-light bullets in hopes of escaping the condition of timelessness. After the bullet frees him from his 19th century garb, he wanders outside, witnesses a strange gypsy ritual, and unknowingly summons Cégeste, a character from his movie and play Orpheus. Cégeste orders him to travel to the goddess Minerva with an offering, but along the way they are detained and interrogated by Death and her chauffeur Heurtebise (two other characters from Orpheus), among other surreal encounters.
Testament is the third part of Jean Cocteau’s “Orphic trilogy,” which begins with The Blood of a Poet (1930) and peaked with its second entry, Orpheus (1950). Since characters from Orpheus play a role in Testament, this film will be much more meaningful to those who saw the second installment. Blood of a Poet has no narrative connection to the others, only a thematic one, and can be viewed in any order.
Cocteau was 71 when he made this film, which he intended to be his final statement in cinema. He wrote that the title Testament of Orpheus “has no direct connection to my film. It meant that I was bequeathing this last visual poem to all the young people who have believed in me, despite the total incomprehension with which I am surrounded on the part of my contemporaries.” Cocteau died three years after Testament was released.
Reportedly, when the production was short on funds, François Truffaut invested some of his profits from his recent hit The 400 Blows so Cocteau could complete his Testament.
The film’s French subtitle (or alternate title), “ne me demandez pas pourquoi,” translates to “do not ask me why.”
Besides Cocteau, the cast is uncredited. At the end, Cocteau says that “Any celebrities who you may see along the way appear not because they are famous, but because they fit the roles they play and because they are my friends.” Among the cameo appearances: musician Charles Aznavour, Brigitte Bardot, Yul Brynner, Pablo Picasso, and director Roger Vadim. Former Orpheus Jean Marais appears briefly as Oedipus.
Edouard Dermithe, who plays the key role of Cégeste, was Cocteau’s adopted son, a fact alluded to in the script.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Cocteau stages his own funeral. His pallbearers are lanky black horse-men. The mourners are gypsies. His corpse exhales smoke. He doesn’t stay dead long.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: The Poet as time-traveling fop; pantomime horse boy toys; Athena’s jet javelin
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In his final film, a giant of the avant-garde unapologetically indulges himself in a surrealistic journey through a misty netherworld bordered by dreams, imagination, and narcissism.
PLOT: A man sketches a face on a canvas; when he sees the mouth he has drawn beginning to move, he smudges it out, but finds that the orifice has affixed itself to his hand. He eventually gets rid of it by wiping it onto the face of a statue; the statue comes to life and sends him through a mirror into a strange hotel where he spies on surreal scenarios through keyholes. Returning through the mirror, he smashes the statue, is transformed into one himself, then finds himself playing a card game and shoots himself in the head when he realizes he cannot win.
Jean Cocteau was already an established playwright, artist and novelist before creating this, his first film.
Le sang d’un poète was financed by Vicomte Charles de Noailles, who also produced L’Age d’Or. They were both filmed in 1930, but first public screening of Blood of a Poet was delayed for over a year until the scandal caused by Luis Buñuel‘s sacrilegious film had died down. (This history explains why the Blood of a Poet‘s date is sometimes given as 1930, its date of production, and sometimes 1932, based on when it was first screened.)
De Noailles and his wife and friends originally appeared in the film as members of the audience, but they did not know what they were supposed to be reacting to. When the Vicomte discovered they were applauding a suicide he demanded the scene be cut. Cocteau re-shot it with a different audience composed of his friends, among whom was the female impersonator and acrobat Barbette, an underground Parisian celebrity.
Elizabeth Lee Miller, who plays the statue, was the student and lover of Surrealist artist Man Ray. She later became a successful photographer in her own right and never again appeared onscreen.
Blood of a Poet is the first in Cocteau’s loose “Orphic” trilogy, followed by Orpheus (1950) and concluding with The Testament of Orpheus (1960).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Cocteau recommended that we view his movie as if it were an enigmatic painting, which leaves us with a plethora of surrealistic frames to consider. We picked a particularly bizarre composition: the “desperate hermaphrodite” in Room 23. The scene begins with a chaise lounge with a spinning hypno-wheel, and with a periodic drum roll new elements are added: a pancake makeup face, line-drawn breasts, a white fright wig, stars and various pieces of clothing strewn about the scene. In a final gesture he/she pulls off a black cloth to reveal the words “danger de mort” (“danger of death”) labeling his/her crotch region.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Collapsing tower; hand mouth; desperate hermaphrodite
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Blood of a Poet is Jean Cocteau’s initial attempt to translate poetry—or rather to place one inside the trancelike state enjoyed and suffered by the poet—on film. Simultaneously quaint and avant-garde, it’s raw, primitive opium-dream weirdness; pioneering in its day, but still capable of startling today’s viewers with its irrational exhuberances.
Trailer for The Blood of a Poet made for a 2010 screening with a new score by DJ Spooky
FEATURING: Gustave de Kervern, Benoît Delépine, Eric Martin, Velvet
PLOT: A simpleton stumbles into a job at a zoo and is conscripted into a heist involving the theft of a dog; through a mishap, the thieves end up leading the pet’s owner up the side of a mountain so that she may die there.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Avida is deliberately surreal, piling offbeat scenarios on top of mysterious images until they constitute a puzzle to be solved. Ironically, the film’s final image suggests a level of logic that is almost too sensible for all that has preceded it.
COMMENTS: Avida sets up a theme right from the get-go, as a picador psyches himself to go into the ring against a formidable opponent. Once his foe is revealed to be a rhinoceros, we get our first taste of the film’s surreal view of the battle between man and animal. From there, we meet our mute hero working as a dog trainer whose job seems to be primarily a target for the animals’ aggression. But when he is too distracted to help his employer in a moment of need, he finds himself adrift in the world. It’s like Being There, but with more barking.
Our theme quickly gives way to a picaresque journey in which the nameless protagonist reveals that he has no idea how to get on in the world. He attacks a golfer for his shoes, pushes down a woman to take her wristwatch (she seems disappointed that his intentions are not more lascivious), and raids a fancy restaurant to steal some lobsters. His visit to a Lynchian job fair lands him at a zoo, where a new array of characters and settings emerges.
The film has the feel of a sketch show, with scenes careening from one to the other. Two men shooting each other with pellet guns give way to a restaurant where the zoo’s animals are on the menu. There’s a plot, but only just enough, and characters who are only germane insofar as their names give them purpose: the Distracted Nanny, the Benevolent Singer, the Man With the Head of Scotch Tape. Avida doesn’t think about these people for too long, and neither should you.
In its first half, Avida is frequently funny, with choices that amuse through surprise. The filmmakers clearly subscribe to the view that anything seen long enough will become amusing in time, as when a bodyguard who has failed to stop the dognapping calmly reaches into an unexpectedly deep arsenal to take aim at the perpetrators. Eventually, though, we meet up with the title character (the only one given a name) who demands that the Mute and his colleagues deliver to her death in a barren wasteland filled with mirrors and armoires, and the humor gives way to a look at humanity’s more pathetic traits.
What Avida is ultimately about is unclear and up for debate. The final image, and the only one in color, is a Dali-esque painting that seems to suggest that everything we have seen is the reasonable explanation for such an artwork, or perhaps that all Surrealist images have their origin in the kind of hijinks that have unfolded before us. The message is further muddied with an epigram from the Native American leader Chief Seattle that cautions against carelessness toward our animal friends—hearkening back to the early theme, but also reminding us that it hasn’t been relevant to the film for quite some time. Avida is idiosyncratic to a fault, and that fault seems to be a lack of trust. The movie bends over backwards to justify its quirks, rather than just letting them be.
FEATURING: Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley, Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Ryan Pope
PLOT: The English Civil War rages, and a group of deserters bands together. Through bribes, threats, and hallucinogens, an occultist’s agent induces a scholar, a soldier, and a simpleton to aid him in summoning his master, O’Neal. Once brought on to this plane, O’Neal forces the trio to seek and find a treasure of immeasurable value—under pain of annihilation.
A Field in England was the first major motion picture to be released simultaneously in cinemas, on DVD, video-on-demand, and broadcast television.
The film’s budget was a modest £300,000 ($420,000 US) and took only twelve days to shoot.
No females appear on screen throughout the film, though the eponymous “field” is voiced (in a manner of speaking) by a woman.
On the film’s release, a craft beer was made available to cinema-goers with the film’s informal tagline, “Open Up and Let the Devil In.”
A limited (400-count) special edition double-vinyl soundtrack album went on sale accompanying the film’s release. For the true fan, a handful of these soundtracks included a blade of grass purportedly plucked from the titular field.
The number “320” suggests a strong bond to the spiritual and occult world.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Seeing as how the film begins with a warning about “flashing images and stroboscopic sequences”, there are any number of images that might qualify (though by their very stroboscopic nature, they may be more of a subconscious kind-of-thing). However, the film’s coupling of sinister madness and unlikely humor is perhaps best exemplified by the shot of five souls romping through the field while in search of the mysterious treasure. (Although an earlier scene with a “giddy” protagonist is impossible to erase from one’s mind.)
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Magic mushroom faerie ring; tableaux “frieze” frames; tent from Hell
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Much like the instrumental meal in the story, the movie’s ingredients all work together toward weird ends—individually they are weird, and together they are greater than the weird sum of their parts. The viewer is presented with a black-and-white period piece with amusing, earthy dialogue and hallucinogens in lieu of sweeping drama and battle scenes. Lightning-fast editing, nebulous exposition, and too many occult nods to count all crash together like an ill planet upon the unsuspecting viewer.