Tag Archives: Surrealism

18. NAKED LUNCH (1991)

“It’s impossible to make a movie out of ‘Naked Lunch.’ A literal translation just wouldn’t work. It would cost $400 million to make and would be banned in every country of the world.” –David Cronenberg

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DIRECTED BY: David Cronenberg

FEATURING:  Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Julian Sands

PLOT:  Bill Lee is a writer/exterminator in New York City whose wife begins mainlining the bug powder he uses to kill roaches, and convinces him to try it as well.  He becomes addicted to the powder, and one night shoots his wife dead while playing “William Tell.”  Lee goes on the lam and lands in Interzone, an exotic free zone reminiscent of Tangier or Casablanca (but which may exist only in his mind), where he begins taking ever more powerful drugs and typing out “reports” partially dictated to him by his living, insectoid typewriter.

Naked Lunch (1991) still

BACKGROUND:

  • William S. Burroughs’s original novel Naked Lunch was selected as one of the 100 best English language novels written after 1923 by Time magazine.
  • The novel was held not to be obscene by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 1966.  This was the final obscenity prosecution of a literary work in the United States; there would be no subsequent censorship of the written word (standing alone).
  • Several directors had considered filming the novel before David Cronenberg got the project.  Avant-garde director Anthony Balch wanted to adapt it as a musical (with Burroughs’s blessing), and actually got as far as storyboarding the project and getting a commitment from Mick Jagger (who later backed out) to star.  Among others briefly interested in adapting the novel in some form were Terry Southern, John Huston, Frank Zappa, and Terry Gilliam.
  • Because the novel was essentially a plotless series of hallucinatory vignettes (what Burroughs called “routines’), David Cronenberg chose to make the movie a thinly veiled tale about Burroughs’s writing of the novel, incorporating only a few of the actual characters and incidents from the book.  Actors in the film portray real-life writers and Burroughs associates Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Paul and Jane Bowles.
  • The episode in the film where Lee accidentally shoots his wife while performing the “William Tell routine” is taken from Burroughs real life: he actually shot his common law wife while performing a similar trick in a Mexican bar.  Burroughs felt tremendous guilt through his life for the accident and has said “I would have never become a writer but for Joan’s death.”
  • Naked Lunch won seven awards at the Genie Awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars), including Best Movie and Best Director.
  • Producer Jeremy Thomas has somewhat specialized in bringing weird and unusual fare to the largest possible audience, producing not only Naked Lunch but also Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) and Tideland (2005).
  • Following a definite theme for the year, Judy Davis also played an author’s muse and lover in another surrealistic 1991 movie about a tortured writer, Barton Fink.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Clark Nova, Lee’s territorial, talking typewriter, who alternately guides and torments the writer.  He’s a beetle who has somehow evolved a QWERTY keyboard as an organ. When he speaks, he lifts his wings to reveal a sphincter through which he dictates his directives.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  It begins with an exterminator who does his rounds wearing a three piece suit and fedora.  His philosophy is to “exterminate all rational thought.”  His wife steals his insecticide and injects it into her breast to get high, and gets him hooked on the bug power, too.  A pair of cops question him on suspicion of possessing dangerous narcotics, and leave him alone in the interrogation room with a huge talking “caseworker” bug who explains that his wife is an agent of Interzone, Incorporated, and is not even human.  And this is just the setup, before the film turns really weird.


Original trailer for Naked Lunch

COMMENTS:  Make no mistake: Naked Lunch is clearly David Cronenberg’s movie, not Continue reading 18. NAKED LUNCH (1991)

CAPSULE: ELEVATOR MOVIE (2004)

NOTE: Elevator Movie has been promoted to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Commenting is closed on this review, which is left here for archival purposes. Please visit Elevator Movie‘s Certified Weird entry to comment on this film.

DIRECTED BY:  Zeb Haradon

FEATURING:  Zeb Haradon, Robin Ballard

PLOT:  A socially maladjusted college student and a reformed slut turned Jesus freak are elevator_movie

trapped in an elevator together–impossibly, for weeks on end.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Quite possibly, Elevator Movie will make the overall list of 366 movies; I reserve the right to revisit it in the future.  By mixing Sartre’s “No Exit” with an ultra-minimalist riff on Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, garnished with large dollops of sexual perversity, writer/director/star Zeb Haradon has created one of the weirder underground movies of recent years.  Unfortunately, in a demanding two character piece that requires top-notch, nuanced dramatic performances to succeed, Haradon’s acting talent isn’t up to the level of his imagination and screenwriting ability.  The resulting film looks like an “A-” film school final project: it tantalizingly promises more than it’s capable of delivering. 

COMMENTS:  Zeb Haradon is definitely a writer to keep an eye on.  The script of Elevator Movie, though not perfect (it misses a few precious opportunities to ratchet the tension and drama up to stratospheric levels), is far and away the movie’s greatest asset.  Haradon takes a very threadbare set of motifs (most notably, infantile Freudian sexuality) and pushes them as far as he can.  This two-character, one setting drama could have been intolerably boring for the first few reels as it builds to its crashingly surreal climax, but Haradon manages to keep us interested by slowly revealing new facets of the characters and keeping up a reasonable tension as Jim and Lana struggle to reconcile their need for intimacy with their complete incompatibility and diametrically opposed agendas.  This could have been a masterpiece, had the actors been able to carry off the monumental task the script sets up for them.  Robin Ballard is passable in the easier role of Lana, but Haradon is almost unforgivably subdued as Jim.  Jim is passive, so some of the wimpiness of the characterization is intentional, but when he needs to project a menacing, seething passion subdued under a calm exterior, he can’t pull it off.  Therefore, at times the inherent dramatic conflict tails off into a bland “OK, OK”, just as Jim’s voice does when Lana once again rejects his advances. 

The images in Elevator Movie, largely scatological and sexual but also involving some brief animal cruelty, are not for the meek.  That said, some of these shocking images, and the surprising but perfect ending, can resonate a horrid fascination for a long time afterwards.  That’s what makes Elevator Movie come so achingly near to being a great weird movie.  Even with qualifications, it’s definitely worth a look for the Eraserhead set.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As a champion of ‘Eraserhead’, ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’, ‘Naked Lunch’, and ‘Back Against the Wall’, all fine films that downright bask in their toxicity to the homogenized masses, I found Haradon’s film to be unique and fascinating and a most worthy addition to the midnight movie circuit. Just don’t ask me to spend any longer in Haradon’s mind than I have to in any one sitting. It’s very likely I’d never make it out!”–Daniel Wible, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: W THE MOVIE (2008)

twostar

DIRECTED BY: Alfred Eaker & Ross St. Just

FEATURING: Alfred Eaker, PinkFreud

PLOT: “W” appears in a meteorite in the Arizona desert, steals the election for

Still from W: The Movie (2008)

the party of No, and becomes a tyrant opposed by liberal reporter BlueMahler.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  With half the characters distinguished by facepaint that makes them look like either World Wrestling Federation rejects or members of a failed 70s revival glam band, acting in front of shifting psychedelic computer-generated backdrops, this surrealist satire of George W. Bush’s presidency is definitely weird enough to make the list.  The problem is that, as a polemic against the 43rd President of the United States, it comes with an expiration date.  It’s too particular and too parochial, both in terms of subject matter and target audience, to earn a final place on a list of 366 representative weird movies.

COMMENTS:  Because it is a vehemently partisan mockery of a former President, as opposed to a generic political satire, W the Movie is difficult to review.  Your reaction may depend on your politics; the far left might applaud it as a hilarious send-up of a dangerous political hack, those on the right may be outraged (and personally insulted), or simply dismiss it as liberal piffle.  Moderates and fence-sitters are unlikely to be swayed.  All sides will recognize it as deliberately unfair; Bush’s foibles are exaggerated past the point of absurdity.  W is cruel, crude and stupid, and at his most decisive when he demands his pancakes with “lots of syrup”; his foil, BlueMahler, is brave and righteous, and his only character flaw is neglecting his wife and son as he devotes his life to exposing the truth about the alien demagogue and his infernal war.  W the Movie makes the work of Michael Moore (who himself makes as appearance as a ghostlike, babbling puppet) look fair and balanced.  There’s a place in the film world for narrowly political art and clever character assassination, and in this sense the producers are to be commended for not fearing to enter the fray, take sides, and name names.

But, polarizing political content aside, there’s quite a bit to be admired in the low-budget production.  It’s an excellent example of how a unique, almost mesmerizing visual style can be forged through CGI on the cheap, when artistic effect and atmosphere is placed above the fetish for strict realism.  About 90% of the film was shot in front of a green-screen, and memorable virtual sets include W riding on a missile against a cloudscape (a la Dr. Strangelove), W worshipping at an altar of giant gold coins, and an amusing black and white parody sequence with W in Ford’s Theater.  The effect is a bit like the old studio-bound pictures of the 30s and 40s, where the backgrounds were matte paintings, but modern technology combined with a hallucinogenic vision makes these brightly colored living mattes slip, morph and shift before the viewer’s eye.  Therefore, the film is constantly interesting to the eye, even when the plot gets difficult to follow. Furthermore, Eaker does quite well in multiple roles, including both W and his nemesis BlueMahler. Actors cast in smaller roles range from adequate to distracting.  The humor is also uneven, ranging from the highly effective (the Ford’s Theater scene) to the painfully embarrassing (the 9/11 tragedy is used as an excuse for cheap jokes about W’s pro-life stance and lack of geographical acumen).  More genuine funny and fewer pointed potshots would have made it a happier movie experience.  All in all, W‘s well worth checking out, but if you’re to the right of Obama politically, you may want to check your party of No pin at the door.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this is one seriously messed up flick and… I mean that in the best possible way… wild and wonderful, weird and whacked out.”–Richard Propes, The Independent Critic

4/23/09 UPDATE: W the Movie won the “Best Experimental Feature” award at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival.

7/22/10 UPDATE: For a limited time, we are screening “W” for free on YouTube. Enjoy!

10. ARCHANGEL (1990)

“And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach” (quote originally intended to introduce Archangel)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin

FEATURING: , Kathy Marykuca

PLOT: In 1919, one-legged Canadian airman Lt. John Boles finds his way to the Russian port of Archangel in the endless night of Arctic winter.  There, he meets Veronkha, whom he believes to be the reincarnation of Iris, his dead love.  Veronkha has problems of her own, in the form of an amnesiac husband who wakes up every day believing this is the day they are to be wed, but Boles tires to woo her nevertheless as Archangel’s ragtag militia battles the Germans and the Bolsheviks without realizing that both World War I and the Russian Revolution are over.

archangel

BACKGROUND:

  • The city of Archangel was the port of entry for Allied soldiers during World War I; therefore, soldiers from America, Canada, and the European allies might very well have been found gathered there (although probably not East Indians and Congolese, as depicted in the film).  Many Allied soldiers were sent to Russia, partially to help assist the Imperial (White) Russians against the Bolshevik Communist rebels (Reds).
  • Some reports say that the version presented on the “Guy Maddin Collection” DVD is a different cut from the theatrical and original VHS version, with tinting and intertitles added.  I haven’t been able to confirm whether differences exist.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  As his dying act, a lifelong coward strangles a bestial Bolshevik with a length of his own intestine (which is obviously a sausage link).

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The tale of an obsessive, grieving soldier who thinks he’s found

Short clip from Archangel (French subtitles not in original)

the reincarnation of his lost love in a benighted Russian city where the citizens continue to fight a war that is over would be weird enough if told straight.  Director Guy Maddin exaggerates the already dreamlike quality of this tale by clothing it in the archaic period dress of an early sound film, complete with intertitles describing the action, dubbed voices that are occasionally slightly out of sync, and casually disorienting jumps/glitches in the film.  He pushes this inherently confusing story of terminally confused characters further into strange realms with deliberately surreal elements, such as women warriors going to the front dressed in elegant evening headwear, and even odder sights.

COMMENTS: The city of Archangel seems the perfect place to dream.  Isolated from the Continue reading 10. ARCHANGEL (1990)

CAPSULE: TWILIGHT OF THE ICE NYMPHS (1997)

DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin

FEATURING: , Shelley Duvall, Frank Gorshin

PLOT: A prisoner returns to his childhood home on an ostrich farm in a

twilight_of_the_ice_nymphs

mythical northern land during the constant daylight of the summer season, where he becomes involved with two mysterious women.

WHY IT  WON’T MAKE THE LISTTwilight of the Ice Nymphs is plenty weird enough to make the List, although it can be such slow going that many folks will tune out before discovering it’s weirder points.  Twilight just isn’t good enough.  With several of director Guy Maddin’s more effective films already slated for inclusion, it makes little sense to allow a lesser effort, weird though it may well be, to take space away from a more deserving contender.

COMMENTSTwilight of the Ice Nymphs is set in a suitably colorful and mythic locale, an imaginary land with Nordic overtones and ostriches, but it’s dragged down by an uninspiring hero in an uninvolving storyline, ponderous dialogue, and uneven acting.  The protagonist, Peter (Nigel Whitmey), is subject to bouts of sleep-hunting, and also, it seems, to episodes of sleep-acting.  For most of the movie his emotional range is so low-key that it barely registers: he covers a scale from glum to mildly perturbed.  It doesn’t help that Whitmey’s dialogue was dubbed in by a different actor in post-production after what Maddin hints was a very nasty incident between the director and actor.  Peter strikes up no real chemistry with either of his potential lovers, Juliana (whose personal history is obscure) and Zephyr (a wandering woman three months pregnant with her lost husband’s child), so there is little for the audience to root for in this three-way romance.  Besides Peter, Pascale Bussières as Juliana is cute but forgettable, Alice Krige’s performance as Zephyr seems on loan from a BBC teleplay, and R.H. Thompson’s evil Dr. Solti is little more than a distracting, hammy faux-Russian accent.  Veteran movie actors Shelley Duvall and former Riddler Frank Gorshin put the others to shame, but unfortunately they are pushed into a background subplot.

That said, the film’s visual sensibilities are truly wondrous.  Maddin built his magical fairy-forest inside a Winnipeg warehouse, maintaining meticulous control over every aspect of his mise-en-scene.  Particularly noteworthy are his brash color schemes: he uses “jewel tones” throughout, and seems particularly fond of placing surrounding emerald hues with bright pinks, magentas, and tangerines, as in a sunset setting over a forest canopy.  This makes the movie effective as a slide-show of gorgeous stills; Twilight would probably work well on a big screen TV with the sound turned off as visual wallpaper for a hoity-toity wine-and-cheese party.

Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is available on the DVD, “The Guy Maddin Collection” (buy), along with the feature film Archangel and the award-winning short The Heart of the World.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Maddin’s fictional world is… so infused with such a delightful weirdness, such a disorienting, overwrought absurdity, that its artificiality and peculiarity give it a marvelous flavor that is a real pleasure to savor.” -Keith Allen, movierapture.com

7. EL TOPO (1970)

AKA The Mole (literal translation)

“Q: You’re creating this story right now.

A: Yes, this very moment.  It may not be true, but it’s beautiful.” -Alejandro Jodorowsky in “Conversations with Jodorowsky”

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Alejandro Jodorowsky

PLOT: El Topo, a figure dressed in black and carrying his nude son on horseback behind him, uses his supernatural shooting ability to free a town from the rule of a sadistic Colonel.  He then abandons his son for the Colonel’s Woman, who convinces him to ride deep into the desert to face off against four mystical gunfighters.  All of the gunfighters die, but El Topo is betrayed, shot, and dragged into a cave by a society of deformed people, who ask the outlaw turned pacifist to help them build a tunnel so they can escape to a dusty western town run by degenerate religious fascists.

el-topo

BACKGROUND:

  • El Topo is considered to be the first “midnight movie,” the first movie to be screened in theaters almost exclusively after 12 AM.  Although the heyday of the midnight movie has past, it was a clever marketing gimmick that stressed the unusual nature of the film and positioned El Topo as an event rather than just another flick.
  • El Topo was famously championed and promoted by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
  • Due to an acrimonious dispute over ownership rights between Jodorowsky and Allen Klein, the film was withdrawn from circulation for 30 years, during which time it could only be seen on bootlegged VHS copies.  The scarcity of screenings vaulted El Topo‘s already powerful reputation into a legendary one.  Jodorowsky and Klein reconciled in 2004 and the film had a legal DVD release in 2005.

INDELIBLE IMAGEEl Topo is a continuous stream of unforgettable images; any frame chosen at random inflames the imagination.  My personal favorite is the lonsghot after El Topo kills third master gunfighter, where his body lies bleeding in his own watering hole while the rest of the landscape is littered with rabbit corpses.   The iconic image, however, is  El Topo riding off on horseback with a naked child sitting behind him, holding a black umbrella over his head.  This image is particularly representative because it shows not only Jodorowsky’s gift for composition, but his penchant for shamelessly borrowing from other sources of inspiration: the concept is pinched from the most surreal moment of Sergio Leone’s classic Spaghetti Western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  In the first scene, a man clad in black carrying an

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Original trailer for El Topo

umbrella rides through an endless desert waste.  Behind him in the saddle is a male child, naked except for a cowboy hat.  The man stops his horse by a lonely hitching post in the sand, ties the umbrella to the post, and hands the boy a teddy bear and a locket and a photograph.  The man says, “Today you are seven years old.  You are a man.  Bury your first toy and your mother’s picture.”  He pulls out a flute and plays while the naked child follows his instructions.  What makes El Topo weird is that this is the most normal and comprehensible thing that happens the film.

COMMENTS:  In Judges 14, Samson (the Hebrew version of Hercules) is attacked by a Continue reading 7. EL TOPO (1970)