Tag Archives: The creative process

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)

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)

POP MEETS THE VOID (2015, WILLIAM CUSICK)

‘s Pop Meets The Void (2015) is what independent film should be: an alternative to mainstream cinema, as opposed to a low budget imitation of Hollywood fare.

Cusick sees the artist as in revolt against common sense and repressive conventions of the social order. The musician protagonist of Pop Meets the Void encounters the fingernails-down-chalkboard inquisition that almost every artist endures from bourgeoisie muggles: “Are you a real artist or do you just wanna be?” Fill in the appropriate follow-up blank: “Are you famous? Are you rich? Do you have a recording contract with a big label? Have you published a book? Have you acted in a real movie, like the ones from Hollywood? Have you sold a painting for a million dollars yet?” Followed by “So, what’s the point?”

German Expressionist painter Franz Marc astutely addressed the artist’s encounter with the bourgeoisie in an entry from the famous “Blue Rider Almanac”: “It is strange that people should value spiritual treasures so differently than material ones. If someone conquers a new colony for his country, the whole country rejoices for him and does not hesitate to take possession of that colony. Technological achievements are met with the same rejoicing. On the other hand, if someone should think of giving his country a spiritual treasure, it is almost always rejected with anger and irritation; his gift arouses suspicion and people to try and do away with it. Why new paintings and why new ideas? What can we buy with them? We already have too many old ones.”

Painter Paul Gauguin advised young artists to worry less about the finished work and locate sacrament in the artistic process. This is Cusick’s spirit. He retreats and takes the role of artist as hermit, keeping his music attic-bound. As a hermit, his worldview encompasses the artist as misfit prophet.

Still from Pop Meets the Void (2015)The narrative of artist as contrarian to the world has been around as long as there has been artists, and will continue until the artist goes the way of the dinosaur. If Cusick had merely followed an orthodox route, his film would be dishonest and pedestrian. Cusick knows such a retreat must inspire a genre-rejecting, authentic composition, and Pop Meets The Void‘s fantasia qualities make it a startling work that validates the narrative as both immortal and relevant. History does not exist. Rather, the artistic expression is fluid. Marc sees continuity as opposed to an historical valve which shuts on and off: “Cezanne and El Greco are spiritual brothers, despite the centuries that separate them.” We can, of course, subscribe to the maxim there is nothing new under the sun, but Cusick stubbornly refuses to be fence-bound, charismatically imprinting his own process.

Criticizing the historical development of cinema, wrote: “Moving pictures merely repeat what we have been told for centuries by novels and plays. Thus, a marvelous instrument for the expression of poetry and dreams (the subconscious world) is reduced to the role of simple REPEATER of stories expressed by other art forms.” Cusick utilizes the liberty of dreams to convey boundless paradoxes presiding in the asphyxiating mirage of adulation and celebrity.

Smarter still, Cusick forgoes the aloofness which often permeates and hinders the surreal aesthetic. In ambitiously attempting to construct something akin to a Mahlerian universe, Cusick does not shy away from bathos. If it is all-encompassing, then his work must be imbued with all facets of the mortal experience. Pop Meets The Void is coarse and sleek, opaque and diaphanous, textured and emotional, a visual work about music. As the late composer Pierre Boulez advised: “We must be cultural omnivores and raid all the art forms to enhance our own medium.” Cusick’s impetuously earnest effort does just that, and is a List contender.

226. CONSPIRATORS OF PLEASURE (1996)

Spiklenci Slasti

Conspirators is actually a film about liberation, and about gaining a freedom.”–Jan Svankmajer explaining why he considered Conspirators his most Surrealistic film up to that point

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jan Svankmajer

FEATURING: Petr Meissel, Gabriela Wilhelmová, Barbora Hrzánová, Anna Wetlinská, Jirí Lábus, Pavel Nový

PLOT: A man enters a newsstand and furtively buys a pornographic magazine as the owner nods conspiratorially at him. At home, he leafs through the pages but is interrupted by the postwoman, who has him sign for a letter that simply reads “on Sunday.” Over the next several days the man constructs an elaborate chicken costume; meanwhile, the postwoman, his next door neighbor, the newsstand owner, and another couple are all involved in their own strange, surreptitious projects.

Still from Conspirators of Pleasure (1996)

BACKGROUND:

  • Conspirators of Pleasure began life as a screenplay for a short written in 1970 but never filmed. That short would have told the parallel stories of the “chicken man” and his neighbor across the hall. Svankmajer resumed work on the project in 1996, thought of four more characters to include, and expanded the film to feature length.
  • In 1975 Svankmajer wrote a (satirical?) essay entitled “The Future Belongs to Masturbation Machines.”
  • Originally known for his stop-motion animated shorts, Conspirators was Svankmajer’s third feature film, and it continued a trend of having less and less animation in each successive film (there are only a few accent scenes here, which amount to about one minute of animation).
  • The end credits list Sacher-Masoch, the , Freud, , and Bohuslav Brouk (a Czech psychoanalyst who wrote up a series of case studies about masturbatory practices) as having provided “professional expertise.”
  • The , animators who paid tribute to the Czech director with the 1984 film “The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer,” are listed in the credits as “musical collaborators” (although the soundtrack is prerecorded classical music).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The man in a chicken suit doing a ritualistic (and sometimes literally animated) dance in front of a doll-like effigy tied to a chair.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Stop-motion submissive; dough-snorting; carp shrimping

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: We follow six people engaged in complicated, intensely personal fetishistic rituals; adding to the odd, voyeuristic atmosphere, there is no dialogue, other than what’s overheard in the background on television. Each of the conspirators crosses the others’ paths, but continue to work on their own private obsessions, until all of them appear to receive their ultimate gratification. Then, Jan Svankmajer launches us into a new stratosphere of strangeness at the finale, when the chickens come home to roost (so to speak).


Short clip from Conspirators of Pleasure

COMMENTS: Case study: a man, Eastern European, balding but fit Continue reading 226. CONSPIRATORS OF PLEASURE (1996)

225. ADAPTATION. (2002)

CHARLIE KAUFMAN: I’ve written myself into my screenplay.

DONALD KAUFMAN: That’s kind of weird, huh?

Adaptation.

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Chris Cooper, Brian Cox

PLOT: Screenwriter , fresh off the hit Being John Malkovich, is contractually and mentally trapped as he is forced to plow his way through an impossible project: “writing a movie about flowers.” Things go from bleak to bizarre as he finds himself competing with his endearingly oblivious twin brother, Donald, who also aspires to be a screenwriter. Charlie slips further and further past the deadline, until things come to a head in the film’s swampy denouement where he comes face-to-face with both the writer of and titular character from “The Orchid Thief,” the book he is adapting for the screen.

Still from Adaptation. (2002)

BACKGROUND:

  • The screenplay for Adaptation. was on Charlie Kaufman’s to-do list since the late ’90s. Tasked with adapting Susan Orlean’s novel-length essay “The Orchid Thief” and suffering the same problems as his doppelganger, he kept his progress secret from everyone other than Spike Jonze until 2000, when the movie was green-lit for production.
  • Screenwriting guru Robert McKee and his seminars are real. He personally suggested Brian Cox play him in the movie.
  • Adaptation. handily recouped the producers’ investment, with a return of $32.8 million worldwide on a $19 million outlay.
  • Nominated for four Oscars: best actor for Cage, supporting actor for Cooper, supporting actress for Streep, and adapted screenplay for Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Cooper was the only winner.
  • Though “Donald” Kaufman’s serial killer script The 3 was never shot, the idea may have inspired two subsequent movies, 2003’s Identity and 2006’s Thr3e.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Returning from a misfired date, Charlie finds his twin brother already back home from a writer’s seminar, brimming over with newly adopted wisdom. As Charlie stands in front of his hallway mirror, Donald’s face is captured in the reflection as he expounds upon his own screenplay’s “image system” involving broken mirrors. Charlie’s expression goes from dour to disbelieving at this inanity, and the viewer sees the movie mock both itself and screenplay tricks. A further twist is added by the fact that the blurry reflection in the mirror is the face of the actual Charlie Kaufman talking to Nicolas Cage.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Film-within-a-film-within-a-screenplay-within-a-screenplay ; Ouroboros; orchid-snorting

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: For all its unconventionality, Adaptation is amazingly self-deprecating. Spoilers unravel in opening scenes and are tossed aside, coastal city elites are presented as real people with the petty little problems real people have, and Nicolas Cage gains a bit of weight and loses a bit of hair to provide the compelling double performance as the Kaufman brothers. Events seem scattershot, only to have their purposes later clarified as the tightly structured flow keeps the viewer jumping from moment to moment, always questioning which parts of this convoluted tale are actually true.

COMMENTS: Between its thorough description of the protagonist Continue reading 225. ADAPTATION. (2002)

CAPSULE: MEMPHIS (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Tim Sutton

FEATURING: Willis Earl Beal

PLOT: An R&B singer wanders through Memphis, Tennessee, struggling to find inspiration to complete a second album after a successful debut.

Still from Memphis (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s only slightly weird, and while there are moments of unquestionable beauty, its vast empty spaces make it a real wristwatch checker.

COMMENTS: Although anyone who’s ever worked in any creative medium can identify with its torments, writer’s (or musician’s) block is a hard thing to convey to an audience in a fascinating way. Although the cinematography here is sublime, and Willis Earl Beal has a weird funky charisma, Memphis is not up to the challenge of engaging us with this artist’s disengagement. What Memphis is best at is depicting the African American communities of it’s title city as a throwback to the ancient world of the blues, a place where men still wear felt hats and play dominoes and drink out of paper bags (I know men still play dominoes and drink out of paper bags, but not while wearing porkpie hats). With tree boughs hanging over the boulevards and weed-choked lots separating the bars from the churches, these neighborhoods look simultaneously urban and rural, like postcards from a pre-smart phone era.

Beale is a man out of time, too; he fits in better with the grizzled old men sitting on their porches than he does with folk his own age. As the movie progresses—to whatever degree such a deliberately static work can be said to progress—it becomes increasingly unclear whether the singer might actually be suffering from some form of mental illness. When he says in the opening scenes that he’s a wizard who conjures his own reality, it sounds like a metaphor for artistic creation, but the more he rambles about envying the trees or copulating with the dirt, the more you consider the frailty of the line between genius and madness. There are parallels between his alienation from his own creativity and alienation from God (and thus from his own church-centered culture). He refuses to sing at Sunday revival, and an old man’s midnight advice to him is chilling: “Using your talent is what God wants you to do. He gave it to you for a reason… I’d hate to be in your shoes, where you owe God.”

There are some very good shots in this sprawling, strange and obscure movie. Beale composes in a strange polygonal room with neural ductwork. He slow dances with his sweetie in a neon nightclub, continuing in a trance even when she withdraws. These are moment of poetry that will reward a certain breed of contemplative cinemagoer. Typical audiences are going to find this affair far too slow and inconclusive, however. Beale’s musical talent is only glimpsed in frustrating snatches. The movie is only seventy-five minutes long, but scenes of the melancholy protagonist walking around whistling or practicing his stick-fighting moves with a broom seem interminable. Memphis‘ non-story could have been conveyed with as much impact at a third of the length.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “…Sutton at least keeps the running time trim. Perhaps he knew that the strange magic he and Beal occasionally conjured was destined to have a short shelf life. Better to leave the few audience members plugging into this cryptic oddity wanting more.”–Film Journal International (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: BIRDMAN (2014)

Birdman or: (The Unexpected Virtues of Ignorance)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alejandro González Iñárritu

FEATURING: , Emma Stone, Edward Norton, , , Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan

PLOT: Aging actor Riggan Thomas, who became a superstar anchoring a blockbuster superhero franchise in the 1990s, writes, directs and stars in a Broadway show in an attempt to be taken seriously as an artist; unfortunately, he’s simultaneously battling the voices in his head, as his old alter-ego presses him to sign up to do “Birdman 4.”

Still from Birdman (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Birdman is a movie that adopts a weird methodology to tell its story, but it’s only weird by the diminished standard of movies that will be nominated for multiple Academy Awards.

COMMENTS: Birdman starts with a strange conceit. It’s about a former superstar actor, star of a superhero tentpole franchise, trying to be taken seriously as an artist by producing, writing, starring and directing a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver short story. To throw a wrench into things, the actor is also insane, believing that he has telekinetic powers, and he hallucinates that his Birdman alter-ego is taunting him for his artistic pretensions. So, given that this is your story, why not sweeten the weirdness by scoring the film to solo jazz percussion and shooting the entire movie in what appears to be one unbroken take?

Birdman is not like any other film you’re likely to see this year, or anytime soon. It is a movie that (on the surface) insists that plays are more authentic artistic expressions than movies. It’s an extremely theatrical movie, one that’s bursting with smart dialogue, numerous subplots, and memorable monologues. It’s no wonder that a top-notch cast was attracted to the project. Most notable is Edward Norton, in a flamboyant role as an arrogant actor with so much talent he’s compelled to sabotage himself just to keep things interesting. Keeping pace is Emma Stone as Riggan’s wayward daughter, just out of rehab and more adept at spotting others’ b.s. than her own. Even Zach Galifianakis impresses in a rare straight-man turn as Riggan’s lawyer. Still, Keaton, willing to let the camera linger on his thinning hair and explore his deepening crow’s feet, carries an impressive load of the film’s ambition on his shoulders. Keaton, Norton and Stone will all be remembered come awards season.

The cinematography (by Emmanuel Lubezki, coming off an Oscar for his work on Gravity) plays as big a role as any of the stars. Unlike long-take record-holder Russian Ark, Birdman is not really a one-take movie, since it has at least a couple of invisible edits (as did Rope). The extended tracking shots, which wander around the labyrinthine theater ducking into various dressing rooms and rehearsal spaces, are nonetheless highly impressive. The long-take gimmick is impeccably realized, but it isn’t really formally necessary. This would essentially be the same movie if it were conventionally edited. You could argue that the one-take technique gives the camera a “gliding” sensibility (like a bird), or that it mimics the dangerous unpredictability of live theater, but I think the real reason the filmmakers did it is simply because it was difficult to do. Like art itself, its very unnecessariness is its justification.

It’s hard to believe that many people will find Riggan Thomas’ struggle—whether to turn his back on his colossal financial success and create something meaningful, or just give the idiots the pabulum they crave—very relatable. The implied insults to fans of superhero movies are a bit much, as is the strawman of a snobby theater critic who plans to shut down the show—sight-unseen—simply because it has the stink of Hollywood about it. (Pre-emptive shots at critics are almost always cringeworthy, and Birdman really should be above such shenanigans).  Birdman is Hollywood insiders navel-gazing, hang-wringing, and soul-searching about how to be taken seriously as artists, sure. But it’s also the best Hollywood has to offer: it’s unpredictable, bold, and unapologetic, manned by a completely committed cast and crew working at their collective peaks. By doing so, they ensure that they are taken seriously as artists, even though their movie has exploding helicopters and a guy gliding through digital clouds in a molded plastic bird costume.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a near-seamless concoction of onscreen surrealism that would make the likes of Terry Gilliam, Michel Gondry, and Spike Jonze green with envy.”–Gary Dowell, Dark Horizons (contemporaneous)

LA LONTANANZA NOSTALGICA UTOPICA FUTURA (2014)

A new short film by Alfred Eaker and James Mannan

Still from La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura (2014)Director’s statement:

La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura (trans: Nostalgia for a Distant Future Utopia) takes its title from a work by Italian avant garde composer Luigi Nono.  This film was made while Alfred Eaker was a student at the John Herron School of Art. Al invited me to co-direct this short piece from his screenplay. Subsequent editorial embellishments were supplied by J. Ross Eaker, who also served as cinematographer. The story of Paul and Vincent’s combative relationship is well worn cinematic territory, the usual focus being on Vincent’s impulsive, self destructive behavior. Our decision was to examine their aesthetic and spiritual struggles, with a focus on Paul’s equally self destructive ego and immorality. Much of the dialogue is taken directly from their personal correspondence.  Historicity and realism are eschewed and the approach is impressionistic; Brechtian if you will. This was a budgetary move to be certain, but allowed the text and themes domination over the mis-en-scene. What results is an examination of the art and essence of two flawed men whose influence dominated the following century and beyond. An aphorism used by Nono speaks to our intentions: Caminantes, no hay caminos, hay que caminar   (Travellers, there are no roads, there is just traveling.   –James Mannan

LIST CANDIDATE: FRANK (2014)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Lenny Abrahamson

FEATURING: , , , Scoot McNairy

PLOT: A struggling young musician lands a gig as keyboardist in an experimental band led by an eccentric prodigy who never takes off his oversized  papier-mâché head.

Still from Frank (2104)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Here at 366 Weird Movies, we immerse ourselves so deeply in the bizarre end of the cinema pool that we sometimes lose track of what the mainstream thinks of as “weird.” When I’m watching a movie in a theater, I usually keep an eye out for walkouts as a good gauge of when a film is too strange for the comfort of average cinemagoers. There were no walkouts in Frank; actually, the audience laughed frequently, at exactly the places the writers intended them to. As much as I enjoyed Frank, as I was leaving the theater I was wondering if it could make the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies based merely on Michael Fassbender’s performance inside a giant fake head when a wide-eyed stranger accosted me with the observation, “that was one frickin’ strange movie.” (Yes, he actually said “frickin'”). That unsolicited endorsement of the film’s oddness, from a man who was obviously open-minded enough give a movie about a musician with a giant fake head a chance in the first place, is enough for me to give Frank consideration for the List.

COMMENTS: Steeped in self-aware indie music culture (Austin’s hipster festival South by Southwest is even a major plot point), the charming and playful Frank is in danger of becoming too twee for its own good. The early crisis that affords protagonist Jon Burroughs his opening to join macrocephalic Frank’s band “Soronprfbs” as an emergency keyboard player is one of the quirkiest and least depressing suicide attempts ever filmed, leaving us to wonder whether there will be this will be one of those consequence-free comedies where nothing is at stake and it’s impossible for any of the characters to be seriously hurt. And while Frank does play that way through its spry opening reels, it eventually shades its sunshine with clouds, as Frank’s madness progresses from cute to disabling.

Michael Fassbender, in what is almost a pure voice acting performance, conveys the fascination of the guileless Frank, a mad genius who wears his giant plaster head like a cocoon of childlike creativity. Frank is joined in his musical pursuits, which involve rigorous exercise regimens and spontaneous odes to tufts in the carpet, by engineer/manager Don, a friendly recovering lunatic Frank met in a mental hospital, and scary Clara, a sociopathic theraminist with an intense loyalty to Frank and an equally intense loathing for all forms of mediocrity. A French-speaking guitarist and a nearly silent percussionist round out the band, until they are joined by Jon, a struggling songwriter and competent keyboard player. Jon is encouraged by affable Frank and by Don, who sees him as an equally untalented kindred spirit, while the rest of the band considers him an interloper. Jon will attempt to grow as an artist under Frank’s tutelage, but can he find the divine spark of madness, or will his attempts to steer the band in a more accessible direction tear them apart?

Frank seems to cultivate an anti-success ethic, embracing the affectation that the only good bands are undiscovered bands. Soronprfbs, of course, is the ultimate uncommercial act: Frank’s ditties range from Syd Barret-esque doodles to full-out psychedelic noise freakouts, and the group never manages to get more than one song into a set before someone throws a tantrum or suffers a breakdown on stage. Ironically, however, as a movie Frank is actually pretty accessible, while still flying its freak flag proudly. It succeeds in finding an audience by being funny, from Jon’s fumbling attempts at basing songs at pedestrians he sees passing before him (“lady with a baby, that’s how it works”) to the description of the sexual peccadillo that got Don institutionalized to Clara’s terrifying moment of horniness. We can’t all be genius weirdo artists encased in fibergalss heads, but we can all laugh at Frank.

Frank is sort-of-based-on-a-true story. British musician/comedian Chris Sievey portrayed the hollow-headed character Frank Sidebottom from 1984 until his death in 2010. The script is a fictionalized version of writer Jon (“The Men Who Stare at Goats”) Ronson’s memoir about his time spent as a keyboardist in Sidebottom’s experimental retinue.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…[a] weird and wonderful musical comedy from director Lenny Abrahamson… [who] puts the pic’s eccentricity to good use, luring in skeptics with jokey surrealism and delivering them to a profoundly moving place.”–Peter Debruge, Variety (contemporaneous)

 

CAPSULE: THE PAINTING (2011)

Le Tableau

DIRECTED BY: Jean-François Laguionie

FEATURING: Voices of Jessica Monceau, Adrien Larmande

PLOT: Figures leave the painting in which they reside and go searching for the Painter to find out why he left some of them incomplete.

Still from The Painting [Le Tableau] (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s visually imaginative and ambitious, with a few hallucinatory moments, but the morally naïve allegory adds a kitschy feel that’s incompatible with the high art graphics. If the story had been sketched out with as much loving detail as the beautiful Impressionist-styled artwork, this might have been a masterpiece, rather than something that’s just nice to look at.

COMMENTS: True to its post-Impressionist inspirations, The Painting is visually stunning. Taking its cues from early Picasso, Gauguin, and (especially) the crazy geometries and color schemes of Matisse, this movie always looks like a canvas come to life. Standout scenes include a dreamlike sequence of a magical flower observing a captive figure with its glowing eye-like stigma, a raucous animated romp across the bridges of Venice during Carnivale, and moments where the characters push through the permeable burlap canvas to emerge in the “real” world. Storywise, however, there isn’t much to The Painting. There are three classes of painted figures in the movie; the fully colored-in Allduns (who consider themselves superior and oppress the “lesser” figures), the incomplete Halfies (who may be lacking nothing more than a corner of the hem of a dress to be complete), and the Sketchies (black and white figures whose shape has only been suggested). A forbidden Romeo n’ Juliet relationship between an aristocratic Alldun and a Halfie leads the characters to leave the painting in search of answers (and hopefully a dye job) from the Painter; they move across other canvases and eventually into the Painter’s studio (where animation mixes with live action). The plot is basic, with the scarcely developing characters simply moving from one CG environment to another. Allegorically, however, The Painting has grand ambitions. It wants to be both an existentialist take on the search for the Creator and a class parable about bigotry and oppression (it also reserves a few minutes to declare its basic anti-war sentiments). By tackling two huge themes, however, director Laguionie ensures that each only gets half-sketched. The idea of the creations searching for God is an appealing conceit, but ultimately the movie has nothing to say about that ultimate reality beyond “be responsible for your own fulfillment.” We’re not convinced that the Almighty Creator is very much like a mortal painter, and so the analogy can’t satisfy our own sense of the mystery of existence. As far as the class parable goes, it’s never clear what the divisions are supposed to represent. Are the differences between the Allduns, Halfies and Sketchies racial, economic, or cognitive? Maybe the Sketchies represent the physically or mentally handicapped, who are, in some offensive sense, “incomplete” creations? At any rate, the movie’s position that the Halfies and Sketchies should “complete” themselves strikes many commentators as ironic and unsatisfactory. Shouldn’t the Allduns learn, or be forced, to tolerate those who are different, rather than the inferior classes accepting that they are defective, and figuring out how to fix themselves? These questions won’t bother youngsters, who will absorb the valuable (if insipid) lessons about tolerance and self-reliance well enough. But the movie’s failure to complete the grand philosophical goals it sets for itself makes it much like a partially unfinished artwork. Still, the part that is painted looks awfully good, and that’s enough to make it worth looking at, if not thinking about.

The French animation studio Blue Spirit produces mostly children’s television programming, but they also worked on the brilliant The Secret of Kells.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The animated film’s aesthetic employs expressionism, realism, and cubism, but the morality plays are layered on as thickly and haphazardly as a toddler’s finger painting.”–Caroline McKenzie, Slant (contemporaneous)