Tag Archives: Writer’s block

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)

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: FRANZ KAFKA’S IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1993)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:

PLOT: A tormented Franz Kafka struggles to complete the first line of his story “The Metamorphosis,” and the constant interruptions by wandering vendors and loud neighbors don’t help.

Still from Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life (1995)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It is, as promised, a legitimately Kafkaesque story, but with a cheesy Frank Capra twist at the end that is horrifying because of its complete tonal incompatibility. This beautifully written, acted and shot comic nightmare would be a shoo-in for a list of the greatest short weird films of all time. It’s perfect at a compact 22-minutes: could Peter Capaldi carry off this grimly hilarious mood through feature length, or would it become repetitive and oppressive? On the other hand, at one-fourth the length of an average Certified Weird movie, shouldn’t it be required to be four times as weird to qualify for the List?

COMMENTS: Writers find writer’s block to be the most horrific condition they can conceive of (see also Barton Fink), and although readers may not be able to directly identify with the existential dread emanating off a blank page, writers attack the notion with such fervor that they convince the viewer of the existential torment of white space. Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life succeeds at conveying the clammy pallor of the nervous artist’s soul through bitter comedy, both subtle and obvious. In the “obvious” bin goes Kafka’s rejected imaginary scenarios about what gigantic forms his fictional protagonist, Gregor Samsa, might be transformed into (e.g., a kangaroo). At other times, however, the atmosphere of anxiety Kafka finds himself breathing is so thick and melodramatic, with shadowy blue lighting and an ominous orchestra and strangers with intense stares and precise enunciation, that the paranoia plays as a parody. And even as we giggle uneasily, we wonder if the danger to Kafka is serious and real: a creepy door-to-door vendor fencing knives and scissors keeps hanging around his door, looking for his “little friend” who has disappeared…  The final Capra-esque coda, coming after Kafka’s complete emotional breakdown and the very real threat of physical mutilation, is a cruel, ironic slap in the face to pie-in-the-sky optimism. The unreality of the happy ending makes the unreality of the preceding nightmare seem authentic by comparison. Richard E. Grant, always a treat when playing a theatrically unhinged lunatic, makes for a perfectly twitchy Franz Kafka. Although better known as an actor, Peter Capaldi’s writing and direction

The final Capra-esque coda, coming after Kafka’s complete emotional breakdown and the very real threat of physical mutilation, is a cruel, ironic slap in the face to pie-in-the-sky optimism. The unreality of the happy ending makes the unreality of the preceding nightmare seem authentic by comparison. Richard E. Grant, always a treat when playing a theatrically unhinged lunatic, makes for a perfectly twitchy Franz Kafka. Although better known as an actor, Peter Capaldi’s writing and direction are so confident and forceful that it makes you queasy to think of the many wonderful films he never directed. There’s a deliberately slanted Cabinet of Dr. Caligari quality to Kafka’s apartment block, and shots and scenes naturally evoke The Trial. Although the short could have been structured as nothing more than a series of insane gags, the script makes it flow from one incident to the next, with characters weaving in and out of the short tale and everything connecting by the end. This mini-masterpiece of alienation carefully walks that same line between fantasy and reality, dream and nightmare, that its namesake trod, but with an added dash of dry British wit.

Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life tied for the 1995 Best Live Action Short Film Oscar with Peggy Rajski’s Trevor—the Academy just couldn’t let a weird film have the spotlight to itself. It’s available on a Vanguard DVD entitled Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life… and Other Strange Tales together with three other comic shorts. None of the others are exceptionally strange. Seven Gates features two squabbling brothers returning to their elderly parents home for Christmas, while Mr. McAllister’s Cigarette Holder is a Southern Gothic period piece (shot in sepia) about a field hand and his albino girlfriend. The best of the rest is The Deal, written by standup comic Lewis Black, which satirizes the macho posturing of capitalism’s movers and shakers, who begin by plotting world domination but end up admiring each others’ designer testicles.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…has all the dreamlike menace of Kafka’s writing, while the story-line sends it up shamelessly… [a] midget gem of post-modern cinema.”–Alison Dalzell, Edinburgh University Film Society

(This movie was nominated for review by Irene, who called it “a wonderful short Kafkian movie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

121. 8 1/2 (1963)

AKA Otto e Mezzo; Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2

CLAUDIA: Let’s leave this place. It makes me uneasy. It doesn’t seem real.

GUIDO: I really like it. Isn’t that odd?

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Sandra Milo, Claudia Cardinale, , Edra Gale

PLOT: Full of doubts and very near to suffering a breakdown from stress, a director is planning to make his next movie, never making much progress. The story is continuously interrupted by flashbacks to his boyhood and dream sequences, including one where he imagines all the women in his life living together in a harem. The production is complicated further by the arrival of his wife on the set, who is humiliated to find that his mistress is also there.

Still from 8 1/2 (1963)

BACKGROUND:

  • By Fellini’s count, this was the 8 1/2th film he directed (counting shorts and co-directing gigs as 1/2 of a movie each).
  • This was Fellini’s first feature after the incredible international success of La Dolce Vita (1960). In the movie, Fellini’s alter ego Guido has just come off of a great success, and everyone around him is expecting him to produce another masterpiece.
  • After making La Dolce Vita and before 8 1/2, Fellini became involved in Jungian psychoanalysis and started keeping a dream diary.
  • 8 1/2 won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1964. It played out of competition at Cannes, because the Italians split up their two 1963 prestige pictures, 8 1/2 and Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, between Cannes and the Moscow Film Festival (a successful strategy, as Visconti took Cannes and Fellini Moscow). 8 1/2 has since far surpassed its companion and become a staple of “best movies of all time” lists. It ranked #9 on the 2002 version of Sight & Sound’s critic’s poll of the greatest movies ever made, and #3 on the director’s poll.
  • The “dance” ending was originally intended as a promotional trailer, but Fellini decided he liked the optimistic tone of this sequence better than the dark ending he had originally planned.
  • Unaccountably, this intellectual meditation on artistic doubt was adapted as a Broadway musical (!) called “Nine,” which was then made into a mediocre Hollywood musical.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It is with great reluctance that I select the image of Marcello Mastroianni flown like a kite above the beach as 8 1/2‘s representative image; not because it isn’t a fascinating and beautiful invention, but because I have to pass on so many other worthy candidates. In particular, I would have loved to pick a shot of Guido with a whip trying in vain to tame the women in the harem of his mind; but that ten minute sequence flows so beautifully and seamlessly from polygamous bliss to infantilism to feminist rebellion that it unfortunately can’t be summed up in a single still.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Watching 8 1/2 is like being dropped inside Federico Fellini’s brain


American trailer for 8 1/2

and wandering around inside its convoluted folds. As self-centered stream-of-consciousness filmmaking, this wonderfully masturbatory masterpiece has never been equaled. The film flows smoothly from anxiety-ridden nightmares to wish-fulfillment daydreams to some state we could safely call “reality” (although some new magic is always creeping up on even the most mundane moments of Guido’s confused existence).

COMMENTS: Expressing my disappointment with the middelbrow conventionality of 2009’s Continue reading 121. 8 1/2 (1963)

51. BARTON FINK (1991)

“And the king, Nebuchadnezzar, answered and said to the Chaldeans, I recall not my dream; if ye will not make known to me my dream, and its interpretation, ye shall be cut in pieces, and of your tents shall be made a dunghill.”–Daniel 2:5, the passage Barton reads when he opens his Gideon’s Bible (Note that the Coen’s actually depict it as verse 30, alter the wording slightly, and misspell “Nebuchadnezzar”).

“Writing is easy:  All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”– Gene Fowler

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Joel Coen

FEATURING: , , Michael Lerner, Judy Davis, John Mahoney, Jon Polito, Steve Buscemi

PLOT: Barton Fink is a playwright whose first Broadway show, a play about the common man, is a smash success; his agent convinces him to sell while his stock is high and go to Hollywood to quickly make enough money to fund the rest of his writing career.  He arrives in Los Angeles, checks into the eerie art deco Hotel Earle, and is assigned to write a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery by the Capitol pictures studio head himself.  Suffering from writer’s block, Barton spends his days talking to the insurance salesman who lives in the room next door and seeking writing advice from alcoholic novelist W.P. Mayhew, until deadline day looms and very strange events begin to take center stage.

Still from Barton Fink (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • At the time, it was widely reported that the Coen brothers wrote the script for Barton Fink while suffering from a mean case of writer’s block trying to complete the screenplay to their third feature film, Miller’s Crossing.  The Coens themselves have since said that this description is an exaggeration, saying merely that their writing progress on the script had slowed and they felt they needed to get some distance from Miller’s Crossing by working on something else for a while.
  • Barton Fink was the first and only film to win the Palme D’or, Best Director and Best Actor awards at the Cannes film festival; after this unprecedented success, Cannes initiated a rule that no film could win more than two awards.  Back home in the United States, Barton Fink was not even nominated for a Best Picture, Director or Actor Oscar. It did nab a Best Supporting Actor nom for Lerner.
  • The character of Barton Fink was inspired by real life playwright Clifford Odets.  W.P. Mayhew was based in part on William Faulkner.  Jack Lipnick shares many characteristics, including a common birthplace, with 1940s MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer.
  • Following a definite theme for the year, Judy Davis also played an author’s muse and lover in another surrealistic 1991 movie about a tortured writer, Naked Lunch.
  • According to the Coens, the final scene with the pelican diving into the ocean was not planned, but was a happy accident.
  • In interviews the Coens have steadfastly disavowed any intentional symbolic or allegorical reading of the final events of the film, saying”what isn’t crystal clear isn’t intended to become crystal clear, and it’s fine to leave it at that” and “the movie is intentionally ambiguous in ways they [critics] may not be used to seeing.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Barton Fink is full of mysterious images that speak beyond the frame.  The most popular and iconic picture is John Goodman wreathed in flame as the hallway of the Earle burns behind him.  Our pick would probably go to the final shot of the film, where a pelican suddenly and unexpectedly plummets into the ocean while a dazed Barton watches a girl on a beach assume the exact pose of a picture on his hotel wall.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A nightmarish, expressionistic, and self-satirizing evocation of the difficulty of creation, Barton Fink pokes a sharpened stick into the deepest wounds of artistic self-doubt. A pure mood piece, its amazing ending achieves the remarkable triumph of leaving us with nothing but unanswered questions, while simultaneously feeling complete and whole.

COMMENTS: The most accurate word to describe Barton Fink is “enigmatic.”  It’s a work Continue reading 51. BARTON FINK (1991)