Tag Archives: The creative process

CAPSULE: MADELINE’S MADELINE (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING: Helena Howard, Molly Parker, 

PLOT: A troubled 16-year old girl escapes her neurotic home life by immersing herself in an experimental theater troupe.

Still from Madleine's Madeline (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Madeline is a promising and passionate shot across the bow of the timid indie drama scene, a collection of typical film festival narrative preoccupations—dysfunctional family dynamics, reflective meditations on the trials of the working artist—blurred by an experimental film lens. But for all its oddball virtues, it’s of limited appeal, and I suspect it finds more favor with dramaheads looking for a weird-ish diversion from the ordinary than with weirdophiles looking for a little drama.

COMMENTS: Josephine Decker has been blipping on the edges of our radar here at 366, with two arty/weird low-budget erotic films (the lesbian-themed Butter on the Latch and randy farmhand tale Thou Wast Mild and Lovely) that we didn’t have the opportunity to check out, as well as an installment in the dream anthology collective:unconscious that we did. Madeline’s Madeline, her Sundance-selected third feature film, is her breakout project, a confirmation that our interest was warranted.

Madeline’s Madeline paints a portrait of three women. Madeline is a 16-year old with a natural gift for acting, an increasing impatience with her virginity, and a slowly-disclosed history of mental illness. She misbehaves like a normal teenager—sometimes going too far—but the seriousness of her condition is also somewhat suspect, since it’s mainly suggested by her neurotic mother Regina, who comes off as a bit of a hysterical hypochondriac. Naturally, these two clash. Madeline’s awkward attempts at erotic expression (she shows a potential beau her departed father’s VHS porn collection) are more frustrating than fulfilling, but the girl finds meaning in her work with an experimental theater troupe—the type of outfit that performs endless improvisations where the cast pretends to be cats or sea turtles or explores dream work and never gets around to rehearsing an actual play. Director Evangeline, our third female character, is working on a script to feature Madeline, but it never develops due to her endless digressions and exercises—experiments that sometimes become uncomfortably intimate. Madeline sees Evangeline as the mother she wished she had—and her feelings might be returned—but their relationship is complicated by mutual jealousy, and by Evangeline’s egotism and subtle authoritarianism. If she thinks she can constrain a force of nature like Madeline, however, the director is sadly mistaken: the teen  proves advanced beyond her years at psychological manipulation.

The briefly outlined story above  is delivered in a series of vignettes; some deliberately confusing, while others wouldn’t seem out of place in Ladybird. The scenes are often broken up by disorienting, psychotic montages: the lens wavers in and out of focus, shot from odd angles while the camera focuses on chins or foreheads or forks during conversations. The score is mostly a capella chanting of the tribal variety; very Greenwich Villagey, just like Evangeline’s bohemian brand of performance art theater. The entire procedure develops into a kind of Cubist filmmaking: individual scenes depict facets of the multilayered story, with details often obscured or muddled, but the whole reveals a complete portrait of its subject, seen from multiple angles. The ending is a psychedelic free-for-all encapsulating Madeline’s rebellion against Evangeline’s artistic authority: the girl stages a mutiny and turns rehearsal into an avant-garde haunted house and choreographed manifesto of independence.

Exemplary acting from the primary trio gives Madeline a leg up on similar experiments. July pushes her eccentric persona in a new, less precious direction. Parker’s character is far more complex than she first appears: the troupe defers to her as its de facto leader, but she’s more dilettante than genius, and her insecurities gradually reveal weaknesses that Madeline instinctively exploits. We never get a handle on which of the three women is actually the craziest—although Madeline at least had the excuse of youth and adolescent turmoil to soften her madness. 19-year old Helena Howard—who plays everything from a confused teen to a kitty cat to her own mother—makes everything watchable, grounding the sometimes flighty project and showing breakout star potential. Unfortunately, this experimental movie is destined to be little-seen, but producers and casting directors will take note of Howard. Like Madeline, her talent is too great to confine itself to underground niche movies: expect to see her cast in bigger projects soon. But we hope she’ll remember, and maybe even return to, her weird, arty roots years from now when she’s a big star.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The opening of the film tells us that what we are about to watch is just a metaphor, not the actual thing. That comes up several times the weirder things get… Madeline’s Madeline was not for me but I’m sure there’s someone out there for it.”–Fred Topel, We Live Entertainment

329. THE TESTAMENT OF ORPHEUS (1960)

Weirdest!

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

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jean Cocteau, , ,

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.

Still from The Testament of Orpheus (1960)

BACKGROUND:

  • 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 . Former Orpheus 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.

Brief clip from The Testament of Orpheus

COMMENTS: The Testament of Orpheus is, beyond question, a self-indulgent film. “Testament” has a dual meaning: it is a statement of Continue reading 329. THE TESTAMENT OF ORPHEUS (1960)

326. THE BLOOD OF A POET (1930)

Le sang d’un poète

“The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.”–T.S. Eliot

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Enrique Rivero, Elizabeth Lee Miller

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.

Blood of a Poet (1930)

BACKGROUND:

  • 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 ‘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

COMMENTS: Jean Cocteau denied making a Surrealist film as vehemently as René Magritte denied painting a pipe. (“It is often said that Continue reading 326. THE BLOOD OF A POET (1930)

314. CRIME WAVE (1985)

AKA The Big Crimewave

“I’d always imagined that this would play at a midnight movie, kind of a cult movie and that this needed special handling. It needed to be directed at the same audiences that were going to see, for example, Lynch’s Eraserhead.”–John Paizs

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: John Paizs

FEATURING: Eva Kovacs, John Paizs, Neil Lawrie

PLOT: A young girl named Kim observes a moody boarder named Steven who has moved into the room above her parents’ garage as he attempts to write the world’s greatest “color crime movie.” As he despairs from writer’s block, she elicits the help of a Doctor C. Jolly from an ad in a trade magazine. However, the good doctor is not quite the savior Steven sets out to find.

Still from Crime Wave (1985)

BACKGROUND:

  • Initially, filming took place only on weekends, as John Paizs was working for the City of Winnipeg as a traffic clerk at the time. A glimpse of his day job can be seen in Crime Wave when Kim and Steve go out on an errand during the costume party.
  • Paizs’ style evolved from the director’s technical limitations, his earlier short film efforts being shot on old equipment without any microphones. He developed a taste for narration, as it allowed him to jump around scenes without confusing the audience. (Paizs’ early short films are currently unavailable).
  • The “above the garage” character came from a previous script concerning a young man pursuing an 18-year-old girl who regresses back to 13-year-old behavior. Unhappy with the story, Paizs transplanted the character to Crime Wave, making the female lead an actual 13-year-old and knocking out the romance angle.
  • Paizs based the staccato pacing of the “beginnings and endings” on trailers for 1950s crime movies.
  • Paizs signed a distribution deal with a company who promptly ignored the film. It received no theatrical release outside of Winnipeg, and years later was dumped on VHS (retitled The Big Crime Wave to avoid confusion with Sam Raimi‘s Crimewave) without much in the way of promotion.
  • Although Paizs’ post-Crime Wave career has been slight, some might have seen his work directing segments of “The Kids in the Hall” (such as the “Mr. Heavyfoot” character). After seeing Crime Wave, the troupe’s Bruce McCulloch recruited Paizs to film standalone short segments in a similarly whimsical-surreal style.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Our narrator, Kim, often observes our hero, Steve, as he stands or sits brooding by the window above her parents’ garage. This recurring image telegraphs that something is about to change for the protagonist, while giving Crime Wave a silent movie feel. Indeed, Steve’s movements, tics, and expressions (or lack thereof) summon nothing less than a latter-day .

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Silent protagonist; streetlight head; “The Top!”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Veering between self-aware amateurism and downright surreal amateurism, John Paizs’ feature debut keeps the viewer on his back foot in an unlikely, charming way. Partially dressed as a documentary, with narration provided by a young girl, Crime Wave shows the hell of writer’s block, interspersed with clips of the breathless beginnings and endings (never middles) of the writer’s output. Its hokey upbeat tone wryly slaps you in the face, while in the background strange and occasionally sinister asides undercut the atmosphere.


Clip from Crime Wave

COMMENTS: John Paizs’ Crime Wave defies most descriptions and Continue reading 314. CRIME WAVE (1985)

312. MOTHER! (2017)

“And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that thou shouldest give reward unto thy servants the prophets, and to the saints, and them that fear thy name, small and great; and shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth.”–Revelation 11:18

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, , Ed Harris, Brian Gleeson, , Kristen Wiig

PLOT: A writer and his wife live alone, rebuilding a house where the man used to live before it burned down. One day, a stranger shows up at their door and the husband invites him to stay, against the woman’s wishes. More uninvited guests arrive, first the family of the original man, and then hordes of the writer’s adoring fans, sowing complete chaos in the home just as the woman gives birth.

Still from mother! (2017)

BACKGROUND:

  • Darren Aronofsky says he wrote the first draft in “a fever dream” in just five days.
  • Per Aronofsky, 66 of the film’s 115 minutes are closeups of Jennifer Lawrence.
  • 20th Century Fox passed on distributing the film due to a controversial scene.
  • The movie received a rare “F” rating on CinemaScore (which measures audience reactions). Fewer than 20 movies have ever received such a low score.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We won’t mention the scene that makes the most impact for fear of spoiling your reaction. (You’ll know it when you see it). That leaves us looking for a second place image to fill this space; we’ll go with the vagina-shaped wound that develops out of a bloodstain on the house’s hardwood floor.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Urine-Seltzer; toilet heart; crowd-surfing baby

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Writer/director Aronofsky lets this movie go all to hell—mother! is his most irrational and difficult film, and also his most provocative, with one scene in particular that sent ’em packing to the exits. It’s a Hollywood offering with an outsider’s brashness, transgressing society’s norms—mostly by blaspheming against coherent realist narrative, the biggest taboo of all. Outraged moviegoers who came to see megastar Jennifer Lawrence’s horror film got a puzzling, punishing allegory instead. mother! was an all-too-rare “event movie” in the weird genre.


Original trailer for mother!

COMMENTS: The first act, with uninvited house guests arriving in Continue reading 312. MOTHER! (2017)

LOVE IS THE DEVIL: STUDY FOR A PORTRAIT OF FRANCIS BACON (1998)

Films about painters are usually recipes for disaster, primarily because the filmmakers are fans and slap a halo around the object of their adulation. Painters-as-film-subjects have generally fared better than composers-as-film-subjects (while we’re on the subject—we’re still waiting for ‘s long-promised Leonard Bernstein biopic). We can point to successes like Carol Reed’s treatment of Michelangelo, that cast Charlton Heston as the gay dwarf who painted the Sistine chapel (The Agony and the Ecstasy). That outdoes Chopin melodramatically dying at the keyboard of “consumption” in 1945’s A Song To Remember, which whitewashed the composer’s mental and career decline, along with his protracted, agonizing death (possibly from syphilis).

Whether painter or composer, artists tend to have tunnel vision, making them unpleasant bedfellows. Of course, not all artists are guilty—only the good ones. The hacks are innocent, which is why they’re usually forgotten.

No need though to worry about John Maybury’s 1998 opus, Love is the Devil: Study For A Portrait of Francis Bacon, though. It delivers. It’s not merely in the top tier of artist biopics, it’s a remarkable film in itself.

First, an aside about the painter. Francis Bacon emerged as a defiantly figurative painter at a time when abstract expressionism was the fad. He was deemed something of a traitor by the self-professed avant-garde establishment. (If you’re unfamiliar with abstract expressionism, just go to a local McDonalds or J.C. Penny stores and you’ll see plenty of latter-day examples hanging up—but rest assured you’ll never see Bacon’s hideous angst-ridden souls there). Bacon stuck to his guns, becoming one of the most relevant painters of the late century; thankfully, he is unworthy of canonization.

Still from Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998)The most striking visual aspect of Maybury’s film was a forced decision. Hypocritically, the Bacon estate was  aghast at the script’s unflattering portrait (based in part on Daniel Farson’s biography) of the artist-as-monster, and refused the director the right to use the artwork. Never mind that Bacon himself would have wanted it no other way. What did the estate want? A Hallmark card? The result is a once-in-a-lifetime improvised inspiration. Bacon’s work is never depicted. We only see him in working, which calls to mind Paul Gauguin’s advice to not concern oneself with the finished canvas, but rather concentrate on the act of painting. Cinematographer John Mathieson brilliantly makes up for the production restrictions by shooting the film as if it’s a Bacon canvas, composing it with the Continue reading LOVE IS THE DEVIL: STUDY FOR A PORTRAIT OF FRANCIS BACON (1998)

LIST CANDIDATE: MOTHER (2017)

mother! has been promoted to the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies ever made. Please read the official Certified Weird entry. Comments are closed on this post.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, , Ed Harris, Brian Gleeson, , Kristen Wiig

PLOT: A poet with writer’s block and his younger wife live alone in a remote house until their domestic tranquility is interrupted by an ever-increasing number of guests.

Still from mother! (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Writer/director Aronofsky lets the movie all go to hell—mother! is his most irrational and difficult film, and also his most provocative, with one scene that’s likely to send anyone with maternal instincts packing to the exits. It’s a Hollywood movie with an outsider’s boldness, and it’s going to be punished harshly at the box office for transgressing society’s norms—mostly by blaspheming against coherent realist narrative, the biggest taboo of all. Fans of this site will want to check it out in theaters if at all possible; whether you love it or find it a letdown, it’s a rare “event movie” in the weird genre.

COMMENTS: In its first week of release, the highly anticipated mother! has already been buried at the box office; and even though I have my reservations about the movie’s overall artistic success, let’s pause for a moment out of respect for a fallen brother (er, mother!) who dared to brave the multiplexes with a message of glorious excess, confused metaphor, baby abuse, and general cinematic dementia. Its birth was improbable, its life brief, and we may not see its like for many years.

The scenario is something like a ian joke mixed with paranoia, although the film develops its own crazy identity as it goes on. Wifey Jennifer Lawrence is dealing with a flood of unwanted guests who treat the home she’s trying to refurbish as a bed and breakfast; her husband, grateful for the distraction from his writer’s block, encourages them. It doesn’t help her shaky mental outlook that she’s chugging some sort of urine-colored alka selzer and hallucinating hearts clogging the toilet. Early on, mother! plays like a black comedy, with the audience laughing each time the doorbell rings and a new guest arrives. This black humor contrasts with ongoing gynecological horror imagery: a vaginal bloodstain on her hardwood floor, with the blood trickles tracing a Fallopian diagram on the walls of Jennifer’s womblike basement. The dreamlike flow of the first hour that quickly escalates into the nightmarish once a pregnancy arrives at the same time her poet husband publishes a poetry sensation that brings a horde of cultlike fans to their remote homestead. Over-the-top apocalyptic chaos follows, with a religious wrap-up that left some audience members scoffing out loud. Subtle and focused mother! ain’t; weird, it is.

mother! is susceptible to multiple interpretations, which may be a problem in a movie that appears to aspire to allegory rather than mystification. Apparently, Aronofsky intends the audience to read the film as an environmental parable about Mother Earth. But it can also be seen as a metaphor for fear of procreation (the strangers who sew chaos in the house act just like unruly children), and at the end it becomes a (heavy-handed) Christian allegory (with Lawrence as Mother Mary, paying an even heavier price for humanity’s sins than her son does). And all along, with its poet/God hero, it’s simultaneously playing as an allegory for the artist, and for the way the audience appropriates His work and gives it their own interpretation—yeah, there’s some heavy meta there.

mother! is already infamous for its divisiveness. It was booed by audiences at the Venice Film Festival and CinemaScore audiences gave it a rare “F” rating, while critics have graced it with generally favorable reviews (68% on Rotten Tomatoes at this time, through the usual dissenters are particularly hyperbolic). 2009’s Antichrist (which also refused to give its parent protagonists proper names) may have been the last movie to create a big a chasm between those championing a film as an audacious triumph and those dismissing it as pretentious twaddle. One thing is for sure: simply dropping a superstar like Lawrence into your surrealist movie won’t make mainstream audiences embrace its uncomfortable weirdness. But J-Law should earn a lot of artistic credibility and respect from a role that was quite a bit riskier than ‘s relatively sane and reserved turn in Black Swan.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Its dread has no resonance; it’s a hermetically sealed creep-out that turns into a fake-trippy experience. By all means, go to ‘mother!’ and enjoy its roller-coaster-of-weird exhibitionism. But be afraid, very afraid, only if you’re hoping to see a movie that’s as honestly disquieting as it is showy.”–Owen Gleiberman, Variety (contemporaneous)