Tag Archives: Surrealism

39. COWARDS BEND THE KNEE, OR, THE BLUE HANDS (2003)

“I only include things that are psychologically true in my stories, no matter how bizarre, stupid, silly or gratuitous the episodes in them may seem… I can only hope that the spectacle of me trying to inflict pain on hard-to-reach places on my own body is amusing to some people.”–Guy Maddin

Must SeeWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin

FEATURING: , Melissa Dionisio,

PLOT: Amateur hockey player Guy Maddin falls in love with the proprietor’s daughter when he takes his current girlfriend to a hair salon/brothel for an abortion. The daughter, Meta, will not give herself to a man until her father’s death at the hands of her mother is avenged. To accomplish this, she wants to transplant her dead father’s hands onto Guy, so that it will be her father’s hands that strangle her mother.

Still from Cowards Bend the Knee (2003)

BACKGROUND:

  • Commissioned by the Power Plant Art Gallery of Toronto.
  • On its debut at the International Film Festival in Rotterdam, viewers watched the ten chapters of Cowards Bend the Knee through ten peepholes in a wall. Spectators had to kneel to put the peepholes at eye level.
  • Maddin issued a companion book to Cowards Bend the Knee (now a collector’s item) containing an expanded screenplay of the film and an interview with Maddin where he discusses Coward‘s autobiographical elements and gives his personal interpretations of the film.
  • Autobiographical elements abound in Cowards Bend the Knee. Maddin’s real life Aunt Lil owned a beauty parlor similar to the one that appears in the film. Maddin’s father coached the Winnipeg Maroons, a pre-NHL professional hockey team; the actual Allan Cup championship ring his father won appears in the film.
  • Maddin’s mother, Herdis, a non-actress, played Meta’s grandmother in the film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: As Veronica lies on the operating table undergoing a clandestine abortion, the blood streaming between her legs forms itself into a Canadian maple leaf.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Cowards features Maddin’s trademark in-your-face style (a mix of silent film artifacts and glitchy hypermodern editing); crazed, dreamlike narrative (incorporating hockey matches, beauty salons, murder, infidelity, ghosts, and a hand transplant); and a wildly veering, yet somehow coherent tone that moves from melodrama to slapstick to absurdist vintage pornography to Greek tragedy in the space of a few frames. If that’s not enough, there’s the fact that the entire story is observed by a scientist, who witnesses it being played out while looking through a microscope at a dab of semen on a slide. Weird enough for you?

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Clip from Cowards Bend the Knee

COMMENTS: Maddin’s Cowards Bend the Knee is a dream, and like all dreams it is at the Continue reading 39. COWARDS BEND THE KNEE, OR, THE BLUE HANDS (2003)

SATURDAY SHORT: GORDON’S SURREAL SENIOR PROJECT FILM #2

This week’s short was created by Gordon Inman eighteen months ago as his senior project film. As you will see, Gordon’s artistic interests don’t stop at film.  He is also a very talented musician.

There are some captivating images in this short, including a Popsicle melting in reverse and a rotting watermelon. Although this may not be the most remarkable short I’ve seen, it shows great promise for the future. Our best wishes to Gordon as he continues to explore and express himself through art.

38. MALPERTUIS (1972)

AKA The Legend of Doom House; Malpertuis: The Legend of Doom House

“For sure, one of the weirdest films you’ll ever see, a cult film above and beyond anything else; a film for those initiated into midnight screenings.  Where else do such dreams take place?”—Ernest Mathjis, DVD liner notes for the Barrel Entertainment edition of Malpertuis

twoandahalfstar

DIRECTED BY: Harry Kümel

FEATURING: Mathieu Carrière, Susan Hampshire, , Michel Bouquet,

PLOT:   When his ship sets anchor in a Flemish town, Jan, a sailor, goes looking for his childhood home, only to find that it burned down years ago.  Seeing a fleeing woman he believes to be his sister, he chases her into a brothel where he is knocked unconscious in a brawl.  He awakens in Malpertuis, a massive estate ruled by his Uncle Cassavius (Orson Welles) from his sickbed.  Cassavius reads his will to his very strange extended family, and its provisions set them at deadly odds with one another.

Still from Malpertuis (1972)

BACKGROUND:

  • Malpertuis was an adpation of the only novel written by the Belgian fantasist Jean Ray, who was famous for his macabre short stories (and is sometimes compared to Edgar Allen Poe or H.P. Lovecraft). The novel was complex, composed of four separate narratives told by four characters, and therefore presented a challenge to adapt.
  • Kümel’s previous film was the dreamlike, erotic vampire tale Daughters of Darkness [Les lèvres rouges] (1971).  Hired to make a sexy commercial horror movie, Kümel delivered a memorably bizarre film that pleased exploitation audiences looking for blood and breasts, but was also a crossover hit in the arthouse circuit.  The success of Daughters convinced United Artists to back the Malpertuis project, which was the film Kümel personally wanted to make.  UA’s financial backing enabled Kümel to hire Orson Welles for the key role of Cassavius.
  • Orson Welles was hired for three days of shooting.  An irascible, elderly eccentric by this time in his career, Welles asked for his fee to be delivered in cash in a suitcase.  Welles was drunk and rude on the set, interfering with Kümel’s attempts to direct and, in one case, repeatedly ruining one of Michel Bouquet’s takes until the director agreed to give Welles a closeup he had requested.  At the end of Welles’ three-day contract, the project was well behind schedule due to the legendary actor’s drunkenness, extended lunch breaks and general peevishness.  Apologizing for his behavior, Welles volunteered to work for a fourth day free, and performed all his remaining scenes perfectly in a single morning, putting the production back on schedule.
  • Malpertuis was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1972, but United Artists did not like Kümel’s two-hour cut and submitted a dubbed, re-edited 100 minute  version of the film rather than the director’s preferred version.  The film was not popular with the jury, then bombed in both the United States and Europe when UA released its preferred version (misleadingly marketed as a horror pic) as The Legend of Doom House. Not only did the film tank, but Kümel’s promising young career was cut short.  Disgusted with studio interference, he began directing in television and teaching, and has directed only a few unremarkable feature films (including some arty softcore pornography) in the last twenty-eight years.
  • The director’s cut of the film was unavailable on video for many years, and was not seen until the film was re-released in 2002.  This cut was not available on home video until 2005, and not available on Region 1 until 2007.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The weary face of the legendary Orson Welles, grumpy and gray but still regal, as he reclines in tuxedo-like pajamas against scarlet bedsheets.  The bed-ridden Welles embodies the decaying secret center of the wickedness of Malpertuis.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Even before we get to the psychedelic-era Chinese puzzle-box of


Original French trailer for Malpertuis

an ending(s), Malpertuis has created a disorienting sense of oddness.  Both the film and the titular estate are labyrinthine mazes filled with enchanting and mysteriously decorated rooms, with little explanation of how these dazzling individual pieces fit together into the grand layout.

COMMENTS: “It’s pretty, but it’s a bit difficult to understand… Somehow, it makes me Continue reading 38. MALPERTUIS (1972)

THE CREMATOR [SPALOVAC MRTVOL] (1969)

The Cremator has been promoted onto the List of the Best Weird Movies Ever Made; the Certified Weird entry is here.

DIRECTED  BY: Juraj Herz

FEATURING: Rudolf Hrusínský, Ilja Prachar, Milos Vognic, and Zora Bozinová

PLOT: In this mesmerizing, Gothic horror film, a funerary specialist becomes obsessed with what he believes to be the nobility of his calling, with terrifyingly tragic and bizarre results.

THE CREMATOR

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The Cremator treats unusual, morbid, taboo subject matter in a visually dreamy way that is artful without being  gimmicky.

COMMENTS: In late 1930’s Prague, Kopfrking (Hrusínský) is a misguided, enigmatic crematorium operator. He is an impeccably groomed, eerie, and meticulous figure, always talking in a hypnotic, soft spoken, poetic manner.  He is overly preoccupied with mortality, morbidity, and the human soul, and deeply devoted to the funerary arts.

Kopfrking feels a physical affection for the instrumentality of his trade, lovingly caressing the equipment of the crematory process.  He speaks constantly, literally and metaphorically, of death and the liberation of the soul through the process of cremation.

As the story progresses, he becomes increasingly obsessed with his work, finding it glorifying and cathartic.  He sees visions of the ghost of his living wife in her youth, along with his future incarnation, as he begins a spiraling descent into fantasy and madness.  He is on a mission to free the souls of the deceased (and in time the not-so deceased) through the pyrolization of human flesh, be it living or dead—just as long as that flesh is consumed and vaporized by fire.

The pre-WWII German propaganda machine is enveloping Eastern Europe, polarizing aspiring Nazis and oppositionists.  Drawn toward the philosophy of the Third Reich, Kopfrking becomes morbidly obsessed with racial purity and the percentage of German blood flowing within his own veins—literally, to the point of having his vessels opened and the contents examined.  While The Cremator is not a raving anti-Nazi film, it uses the political ideology as an allegory for exploring the phenomenon of sweeping, consuming mass delusion and insanity.

The gathering of Nazi forces on the border offers Kopfrking an opportunity to realize his misguided aspirations on a grand scale, one much larger than he could have ever hoped for, one seemingly without limit.  Before applying his fervor and passion to the task, he hatches a plan to betray and destroy his own acquaintances, colleagues and family.

While there are elements of black satire in the The Cremator, the movie is so compelling as to nearly overshadow it.  The film insidiously and steadily flows to its inevitable and horrifying conclusion like a hot rivulet of liquefied fat.

The production design is crisp and symmetrical.  Stanislav Milota’s stunning black and white cinematography is haunting and beautiful.  It features successions of extreme closeups that emphasize the slightly grotesque and disturbing features of the biological condition.  Milota’s use of black and white film stock’s enhanced tonal range is artfully employed to focus attention on rich textures and multitudes of shades.  This gives The Cremator a uniquely unsettling dreamlike quality.  The musical score by Zdenek Liska is alluring, phantasmic, and aesthetically intriguing. Viewing The Cremator is akin to experiencing a nightmare that one is reluctant to wake from.

The Cremator was a Czech nominee for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this 1968 black comedy in black and white is undeniably creepy—once director Juraj Herz enters the fractured mind of his protagonist, he refuses to budge.”–Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

BORDERLINE WEIRD: DR. CALIGARI (1989)

DIRECTED BY: Stephen Sayadian [AKA Rinse Dream]

FEATURING:  Madeleine Reynal, Laura Albert, John Durbin

PLOT:  The granddaughter of Dr. Caligari (of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari fame) performs illicit neurological experiments on patients in her asylum, focusing especially on a nymphomaniac and a shock-therapy addicted cannibal.

Still from Dr. Caligari (1989)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE:  This is a good time to explain that the category “Borderline Weird” does not refer solely to a movie’s inherent strangeness, but to whether it’s both weird and effective enough to rank among the most recommended weird movies ever made.  No doubt about it, Dr. Caligari is about as weird as they come, and would make a list of “weirdest movies regardless of quality” on first pass.  The problem is that this movie is held back by amateurism in the production (especially the acting) and a lack of focus in the story.  I wouldn’t feel ashamed elevating it onto the official List of 366 films, but I wouldn’t want it to take the place of a more serious and professionally produced film, either, so Dr. Caligari will be locked up in the Borderline Weird asylum until I figure out what to do with this curious case.

COMMENTS: The origin and history of Dr. Caligari is almost as strange as the film itself.  Director Stephen Sayadian is better known as Rinse Dream, the creator of arty avant-garde hardcore porn films with ambitions of crossing over into the mainstream.  His Café Flesh (1982), the story of a post-apoclayptic future where most of the population consists of “sex negatives” forced to obtain erotic fulfillment vicariously by watching “sex positives” perform, was generally well-reviewed and very nearly the crossover hit Sayadian craved.  It and was released in theaters in an R-rated version for those with tender sensibilities.  Seven years later, the director again attempted to return to the mainstream with this, his only work aimed directly at an audience not wearing raincoats and sunglasses.  Intended as a midnight movie, Dr. Caligari had some limited success in LA theaters, and then gained a small but devoted following when released on video.

Dr. Caligari never got a proper DVD release, however, and fell out of the public eye; most Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: DR. CALIGARI (1989)

WEIRD SPECIES II: THE SURREAL

The uncanny—by which I mean the type of horror story that focuses on an encounter with supernatural powers and the existential dread that comes from contemplating the Unknown—was the first style of narrative weirdness storytellers indulged in, but for most people today the term “weird” is almost synonymous with the term “surreal.”  This is a shame, because “surreal” has come to be thrown about loosely and imprecisely as a term for anything that is even mildly unusual.  For evidence of this, just look up movies that have been tagged with the keyword “surrealism” by IMDB users.  Among legitimately Surrealist works, you will find such questionable entries as Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Disney’s The Lion King (!)  Until recently, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall also appeared on this constantly evolving list.

Although the word “surreal” is common today, it’s a very new word, less than a century old.  “Surréalisme” was coined by the French writer Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), but it was André Breton who redefined the term and gave it its current meaning when he wrote the First Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 to describe a new artistic and political movement.  The word derives from the French prefix “sur-” (above, beyond) and “realism,” and suggested that this new movement would produce works that transcended realism.  Throughout most of human history, the artist’s dominant concern was realism, the quest to accurately depict or reproduce external reality (e.g., to paint a flower that is instantly recognizable as a flower to any viewer; to tell a story that “really could happen”).  Deeply affected by Freud’s “discovery” of the unconscious, Breton was concerned that art was unfairly limiting itself to only a part of the human experience, the rational, waking world, and ignoring the separate language of dreams and myth.  He also believed that with the rise of science and the attempt to apply scientific principles to all realms of life, things were only getting worse: “The absolute rationalism which remains in fashion allows for the consideration of only those facts narrowly relevant to our experience…  In the guise of civilization, under the pretext of progress, we have succeeded in dismissing from our minds anything that, rightly or wrongly, could be regarded as superstition or myth; and we have proscribed every way of seeking the truth which does not conform to convention.”  He defined Surrealism, his counterpoint to this Continue reading WEIRD SPECIES II: THE SURREAL

REFLECTIONS ON THE 48 HOUR FILM FESTIVAL & THE “9” DIARY.

“Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema” is a column published on Thursdays covering truly independent cinema: the stuff that’s so far under the public radar it may as well be underground.   The folks making these films may be starving artists today, but they may be recognized as geniuses tomorrow.  We hope to look like geniuses ourselves by being the first to cover them.

48_hour_film_festival_4July 31st -Aug 2nd, the 48 hr Film Festival came to Indianapolis, sponsored by the Big Car Art Gallery.  Jim Walker of Big Car curated the event.  30 Indiana film making teams signed up to participate, including the Liberty or Death Team of James Mannan and Robin Panet.

Jim and Robin approached me about six weeks ago, inviting me to participate in this year’s 48 Hour Film Festival.  Since I assisted in last year’s event with them to do Hallow’s Dance, I was a tad reluctant to do all this again.  However, they shrewdly threw out a couple of temptations when they told me they wanted to do something surreal, which is my forte, along with inviting me to write and direct with Robin.  Jim would be producing.  If I recall correctly, my response was something akin to “Oh, alright, goddammit.”

For those who don’t know the set up of the festival, it goes like this: the teams go in on Friday night at 7:30 pm and draw a genre out of the hat.  Jim drew Horror, which was apt as this is Jim and Robin’s forte. Then, everyone is given the same character name, his profession, a line of dialogue, and a prop.

The character name was Professor Sherman Kane, the prop was a ball and the line of dialogue was “I’m not talking to you”.  Now the teams leave, write their script, shoot it, edit and turn it in by 7:30 pm on Sunday night.  Showing of films: Wednesday and Thursday evening at the IMA.

48_hour_film_festival_1I would imagine the whole idea for said festival came from Roger Corman.  The story is well known among film aficionados.  Corman had finished The Raven 48 hours ahead of schedule, with the actors, including Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson, still on contract for the remainder of the shooting schedule.  That night Corman went home, wrote a script called The Terror, came back the next day and shot it within the 48 period.  The problem with this story is that The Terror is indeed a terror to Continue reading REFLECTIONS ON THE 48 HOUR FILM FESTIVAL & THE “9” DIARY.

CAPSULE: LITTLE ASHES (2008)

DIRECTED BY:  Paul Morrison

FEATURING:  Javier Beltrán,

PLOT:  In Madrid in the 1920s, with Dadaism in full flourish and Surrealism in its infancy,

Still from Little Ashes (2008)

soon-to-be-famous poet Federico García Lorca flirts with soon-to-be-famous painter Salvador Dalí while soon-to-be-famous director Luis Buñuel hangs around.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s subject is Surrealism, but its style is conventional historical romance.

COMMENTS:  A supposed collegiate love affair, supposedly unconsummated, between stuffy poet Lorca and flamboyant painter Dalí is the subject of this pleasantly lensed and generally competent costume affair.  Spanish society in the 1920s is socially repressive (although the three idealists have no clue how much worse it will get in a few years with Franco’s arrival), and the budding geniuses yearn to upset the established order.  Beltrán imbues Lorca with a sense of dignity, although his thick accent is frequently a practical impediment for the viewer.  Pattison makes for a distractingly pretty Dalí; his failure to capture the spirit of the eccentric painter is probably more the failing of the simplistic script.  Buñuel is an underdeveloped third wheel and utility player: a homophobe when the story calls for a homophobe, a foil when it needs a foil, a mediator when it requires a mediator.  We hear bits of Lorca’s poetry, get glimpses of Dalí’s canvases, and see the shocking bits from Un Chien Andalou (1929), but we get no real sense of what motivates these men as artists.  Though Beltrán shows suitable young romantic torment when he’s rejected, it’s hard to credit the suggestion that this awkward fling would have made enough of a impact on either man to influence their future art, much less be a driving force.  Dalí postures and lectures about the need to “go further” and “go beyond” in art; not only do we not see concrete examples of what he means, but there’s irony in the fact that the filmmakers don’t heed his advice.  Other than one mental montage where Lorca mixes up impressions of a bullfight he’s watching with jealous fantasies of Salvador and Luis living it up in Paris, and an odd pseudo-ménage à trois that may make some giggle, the film is extremely conventional and predictable in its approach.  These are fascinating men in a fascinating time, so the decision to put the overwhelming focus of the film on a bit of gossip about who did or didn’t sleep with whom, while humble, is a let down.

I can’t help but be amused by the thought of the few tween Twilight fans, showing up to see vampire heartthrob Pattison in action, getting slapped in the face by the eyeball slitting scene from Un Chien Andalou.   It still makes me squirm, and it must seem incredibly weird, random and shocking—particularly in this context—to anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The film is an open-hearted tribute to three great iconoclasts, whose response to its piety and sincerity would, most likely, have been ruthless and obscene mockery.”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times

31. FUNKY FOREST: THE FIRST CONTACT [NAISU NO MORI: THE FIRST CONTACT] (2005)

“Only appearing in your dream.  Distorting every sound to create a world like to other.  This is what they live for; jumping from one person’s dream to another.  Once you have been chosen, you will lose all control of your dreams.”–from the script of Funky Forest: the First Contact

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Katsuhito Ishii, Hajime Isimin (AKA Aniki), Shunichiro Miki

FEATURING:  Tadanobu Asa, , Susumu Terashima, and a large ensemble cast

PLOTFunky Forest is a series of absurdist skits—including both computer generated and hand drawn animation segments and musical interludes—sharing some common characters and situations, thrown together in a blender. The movie features the interwoven antics of two squabbling TV comedians, a trio of brothers who are unpopular with women, an English teacher in love with a recently graduated student who sees him as a friend only, and a school where strange bloodsucking creatures are growing, among many other threads. The comic nonsense sketches and dreams are loosely tied together by references to visitations from “alien Piko-Rico.”

Still from Funky Forest: The First Contact (2005)

BACKGROUND:

  • There is little hard information on this production that is available  in English.  Of the three credited co-directors, Katsuhito Ishii, who directed the majority of the sequences, is usually given most of the credit for assembling the collaborative project.
  • Ishii composed the animated sequences for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (2003) and had a minor arthouse hit with The Taste of Tea (2004).
  • Funky Forest is the first movie directing credit for Shunichiro Miki, whose only previous movie credit was a small acting role in The Taste of Tea.  Miki directs commercials in Japan.  He is responsible for the “monster” segments of the film.
  • Prior to Funky Forest, Hajime Isimin (who is also known as Aniki) had released one direct-to-video comedy in Japan and worked as the musical director on The Taste of Tea.  He is responsible for the “Notti & Takefumi” sequences that contain the film’s major musical and dance numbers.
  • Funky Forest won the “Most Innovative Film Feature” award at the 2006 Toronto After Dark film festival.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The still of the Japanese schoolgirl with a tube jammed into her navel hooked up to a strange machine encasing a large orifice while two strangely costumed men look on, from the segment titled “Wanna go for a drink?”, has already become an iconic image on the Internet.  It’s the picture people post or email when they want to illustrate either 1. how weird the movie Funky Forest is, or 2. assuming the picture is from a mainstream Japanese soap opera, how weird they think the Japanese people in general are.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: As the trailer indicates, Funky Forest‘s weird credentials are unimpeachable; if anything, this is a movie that’s almost too weird to be comprehensible, which is why it’s nice that it’s divided into small bites that can be digested independently. It works like a surrealist version of Altman’s Short Cuts.


Trailer for Funky Forest

COMMENTS: The opening paragraph of every review of Funky Forest is where critics get Continue reading 31. FUNKY FOREST: THE FIRST CONTACT [NAISU NO MORI: THE FIRST CONTACT] (2005)