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LIST CANDIDATE: HEAVY TRAFFIC (1973)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Joseph Kaufmann, Beverly Hope Atkinson

PLOT: The life of an unemployed underground cartoonist who lives with his shrewish mother and mobbed-up dad and lusts after a saucy Nubian bartender, laid down in a mixture of animation and live action.

Still from Heavy Traffic (1973)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: There’s not much of a story, and what plot there is turns needlessly nasty, but as a series of visual experiments Heavy Traffic is a success. Underground animator Ralph Bakshi is an important and very odd innovator with a cult following, and at least one of his films probably should make the List—is this semi-autobiographical tale the chosen one?

COMMENTS: With its brutal violence, casual sex, and animated floppy bits, today we would call Heavy Traffic “edgy” and reward it with a post-midnight slot on the Cartoon Network. But in 1973, this seamy peep-show tour of 1970s Manhattan was scandalous, nearly obscene stuff (Variety‘s dismissive review called it “a blatant example of hardcore pornography.”) Ralph Bakshi’s underground comic on film is emphatically not hardcore pornography; the moral tone is a lot lower and more misogynistic than Deep Throat. Traffic is more like a Tijuana Bible animated by the team behind “Fat Albert” while they passed around doobies. The story begins in live action as a young man plays a pinball machine; we then see his reflections and fantasies about his real life portrayed in grotesque cartoon form. Dad is a low-level Italian gangster out to bust the waterfront unions; Mom is a Jewish housewife whose only pleasures in life are feeding her son and clunking her philandering husband on the head with a frying pan. Young Michael Corleone (yes, the protagonist is named Michael Corleone) attempts to escape the agitation of his home life by drawing, but the world outside his window is hardly any better than the bedlam in his apartment. The local gang of greasy toughs tries to get him to lose his virginity with the neighborhood slut, but he accidentally knocks her off the rooftop. “She had it comin’,” he quips, which inspires the goombahs who put him up to it into frenzy of violent hilarity that ends with them beating each other bloody with chains and knives. That’s okay, because Michael really has the hots for Carole, a foxy black bartender in a halter top and low-slung bell bottoms. When she loses her job halfway through the movie, a plot finally develops as Michael works up the courage to offer to let her share his bedroom, a plan his racist dad doesn’t much like. The interracial couple strikes out together to make it in the big city, but when Michael fails to sell his blasphemous comic about a post-apocalyptic world of garbage worshipers, they turn to tricks to make ends meet. Carole lures johns into a hotel room and a suddenly vicious Michael caves their heads in with a lead pipe. Michael starts as a good kid, but only out of timidness; in his own fantasies, he corrupts himself. The ending is downbeat and jaded, but there’s a hopeful live-action coda that also suggests that the real city is almost as weird as Michael’s imaginary metropolis. With its multi-ethnic, grossly caricatured cavalcade of pimps, hos, burnouts, gangsters, transvestites, and amputee bouncers, New York City circa 1973 is the most fully-rounded character in Heavy Traffic; but it’s the movie’s visual invention that’s the star. Colorful cartoons are layered on top of footage of the real city in all its grungy greyness, while the film stock is often tinted, solarized, or otherwise transformed. The drawings are Hanna-Barbera Saturday morning cartoon quality, but are inventively grotesque and sometimes even surreal (as when Jesus hops by on a cross to rat out Michael’s dad to a bullet ridden Godfather who’s just finished slurping a bowl of pasta peppered with tiny people). Devoted more to alienating bluenoses and earning its X rating by any means possible than to character development, Heavy Traffic may not be a deep and thoughtful movie, and it may not be the feel-good hit of 1973, but it is an utterly unique, nasty vision that is occasionally capable of astounding you with its excesses.

Bakshi had pitched the idea for Heavy Traffic to producer Steve Krantz, but the idea was considered  uncommercial. After Bakshi’s had a hit with the 1972 X-rated animated feature Fritz the Cat, Traffic got the green light. Shout! Factory released the film on Blu-ray earlier this year, although the release contained no special features.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bakshi’s style is completely over the top here, he’s running full steam ahead into material so surreal and so mind bendingly bizarre that you can’t help but get pulled in.”–Ian Jane, DVD Talk (Blu-ray)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: TOKYO! (2008)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, Joon-ho Bong

FEATURING: Ayako Fujitani, , Jean-François Balmer, , Yû Aoi

PLOT: An anthology of three short films set in Tokyo: an experimental filmmaker’s girlfriend feels useless until she undergoes a strange transformation; a bizarre man-creature crawls out of the sewers and terrorizes the city; and an urban hermit falls in love with a pizza-delivery girl with buttons tattooed on her body.

Still from Tokyo! (2008)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: It suffers from the curse of most anthology films: unevenness.  Leos Carax’s “Merde” is almost weird enough to carry it across the finish line, but the other two entries, while interesting, drag the film down to the borderline.

COMMENTS: If Paris’ tradition earns it an anthology film dedicated to love, then teeming, tragic Tokyo gets a triptych on the theme of weirdness.  But even though Tokyo is top-billed, this exercise is hardly about the city at all.  The Japanese metropolis is depicted as too practical, too generic, for a love letter; it instead becomes a metaphor for urban absurdity and anxiety.  Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) is up to bat first.  His “Interior Design,” about a couple sleeping on a friend’s floor while searching for an apartment, starts out so slow that mainstream viewers may be tricked into thinking it’s a conventional drama.  The character development and performances are good, although these particular people—a struggling experimental filmmaker and his passive, too-sacrificing girlfriend—don’t seem quite interesting enough to make a movie about, so we wonder what exactly he’s up to.  Along the way there’s a subtle and funny parody of a parody of the sort of pretentious art-school films that don’t really exist anywhere, but that people like to imagine anyway when dismissing the avant-garde (the beams from the headlight of a motorcycle driven by a skull faced man form a swastika, among other absurd jokes).  The third act brings a metamorphosis that lets Gondry indulge his talent for weird and striking visuals; it ends with a disturbing and humorous metaphor for depersonalization that makes the sly point that there may be greater things to aspire to in life than just being useful.

Joon-ho Bong’s “Tokyo Shaking” is the closer, and the weakest outing.  His story concerns a “hikikomori,” or urban hermit, living on takeout pizza in a self-imposed exile from human contact and sunlight.  It’s an interesting character and there are some bizarre incidents along the way, but in the end the story misses the universal pathos at which it was aiming.

The centerpiece, Carax’s “Merde,” is a change of pace in tone and an upping of the ante in weirdness.  The scenario involves a nasty man named Merde with a twisted red beard, milky eye and a shuffling gait who randomly arises from the sewers and makes an extreme nuisance of himself, embarrassing and assaulting the proper Japanese bystanders, before descending back under the city as quickly as he came.  Eventually his provocations go beyond the merely gauche and he’s hunted down and put on trial; his defense lawyer is a civilized Frenchman who shares the same physical characteristics and inexplicably speaks his language of grunts, whines, hops and slaps.  Merde himself is reminiscent of one of those socially obnoxious “Saturday Night Live” sketch characters that Will Ferrel used to specialize in, if Ferrel had been willing to play mute and push the character’s oddness to scary limits.  On the way to a mystical conclusion the script takes satirical jabs at Japanese xenophobia and the death penalty, and parodies the frenzies created by TV news broadcasts.  Fans have interpreted this strange story as everything from a spoof of Godzilla films to a twisted Christ allegory, and both theories fit the film; it’s that kind of parable.  Although Gondry and Bong’s offerings fit into the weird genre, it’s “Merde” that makes this omnibus of unease worth the watch for fans of the absurd.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a defiantly odd picture — its middle portion, in particular, directed by the always strange Carax, isn’t out to win any friends. But the refusal of ‘Tokyo!’ to proffer even the most perfunctory air kiss is what makes it so intriguing… Perhaps ‘Merde’ is just too aggressively bizarre, for no good reason. But sometimes a movie that makes you ask, ‘What the hell was that?’ can be its own reason for existing.”–Stephanie Zacharek, Salon.com

22. ERASERHEAD (1977)

“He showed me this little script he had written for Eraserhead.  It was only a few pages with this weird imagery and not much dialogue and this baby kind of thing.”–Jack Nance

Must SeeWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING: ,

PLOT:  Henry is a factory worker living in a dingy apartment in a desolate urban nowhere.  His girlfriend Mary’s mother informs him the girl has given birth to his child–although Mary objects, “Mother, they’re still not sure it is a baby!”  Henry and Mary get married and care for the monstrous, reptilian, constantly crying infant until Mary can take no more and deserts the family, leaving Henry alone to care for the mutant and to dream of the oatmeal-faced woman who lives inside his radiator and sings to him about the delights of heaven.

eraserhead

BACKGROUND:

  • Eraserhead was started with a $10,000 grant from the American Film Institute while Lynch was a student at their conservatory.  Initially, the 21 or 22 page script was intended to run about 40 minutes.  Lynch kept adding details, like the Lady in the Radiator (who was not in the original script), and the movie eventually took five years to complete.
  • When Lynch ran out of money from the AFI, the actress Sissy Spacek and her husband, Hollywood production designer Jack Fisk, contributed money to help complete the film.  Fisk also played the role of the Man in the Planet.
  • Lynch slept in the set used for Henry’s apartment for a year while making the film.
  • After the initial screening, Lynch cut 20 minutes off of the film.  Little of the excised footage survives.
  • Eraserhead was originally distributed by Ben Barenholtz’s Libra Films and was marketed as a “midnight movie” like their previous underground sensation, El Topo (1970).
  • Based on the success of Eraserhead, Lynch was invited to create the mainstream drama The Elephant Man (1980)  for Paramount, a huge critical success for which he received the first of his three “Best Director” nominations at the Academy Awards.
  • Jack Nance had at least a small role in four other Lynch movies, and played Pete Martell in Lynch’s television series, “Twin Peaks.”   His scenes in the movie adaptation Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1990) were deleted. Nance died in 1997 after being struck in the head in an altercation at a doughnut shop.
  • Lynch has written that when he was having difficulty with the direction the production was heading, he read a Bible verse that tied the entire vision together for him, although he has refused to cite the verse and in a recent interview actually claims to have forgotten it.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The iconic image is Henry, wearing that expression permanently lodged between the quizzical and the horrified, with the peak of his absurd pompadour glowing in the light as suspended eraser shavings float and glitter behind him.  Of course, Eraserhead is nothing if not a series of indelible images, so others may find the scarred man who sits by the broken window, the mutant infant, or the girl in the radiator to be the vision that haunts their nightmares.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDEraserhead is probably the greatest recreation of a nightmare ever filmed, a marvelous and ambiguous mix of private and cosmic secrets torn from the subconscious. Or, as Lynch puts it, it’s “a dream of dark and disturbing things.”

Original trailer for Eraserhead

COMMENTS:  When you tell people you are interested in “weird” movies, I’d wager at least half Continue reading 22. ERASERHEAD (1977)