POD 366: JOINED BY JAMES NEWTON OF “KATERNICA”

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Quick links/Discussed in this episode:

James Newton interview begins

Giles Edwards’ Katernica review

Animalia (2023): Discussion begins. A pregnant Moroccan woman is separated from her husband when a paranormal apocalypse strikes. Critics are universally positive, throwing around words like “esoteric” and “elusive” (and, a couple of times, “surreal.”) Animalia official site.

Donald Sutherland R.I.P.: Discussion begins. The great Donald Sutherland (star of the Canonically Weird Don’t Look Now and Jesus in Johnny Got Your Gun) has sailed off into the great beyond. The crew remembers him fondly. Donald Sutherland obituary from The New York Times.

I Saw the TV Glow (2024): Discussion begins. Read Gregory J. Smalley’s review. Jane Schonebrun‘s surreal TV fandom allegory arrives on VOD (with premium pricing; if you’re interested in renting it rather than purchasing outright, you may want to wait a while for the price to drop). Buy or rent I Saw the TV Glow.

Kinds of Kindness (2024): Discussion begins. ‘ triptych film arrives in limited release, expanding to more screens later. Apparently it’s weird and alienating; Lanthimos may be intent on losing any overly casual fans he gained with Poor Things. Kinds of Kindness official site.

Megalopolis (2024) has a U.S. distributor and release date: Discussion: begins. Distributor: Lionsgate. Release date: Sep. 27.  Reportage: Variety.

The Phantom of the Monastery [El fantasma del convento, AKA The Phantom of the Convent] (1934): Discussion begins. A trio wandering in a forest meet a strange monk who takes them to a monastery where inexplicable events occur. A seldom-seen early Mexican horror film now available restored on Blu-ray. This Indicator release is a standard version of a previous limited-edition release.  Buy The Phantom of the Monastery.

Piaffe (2022): Discussion begins. Read Gregory J. Smalley’s review. Art-house weirdness about a shy foley artist growing a horse tail arriving on DVD or Blu-ray this week. Buy Piaffe.

Waiting for Dalí (2023): Discussion begins. A Spaniard sets up a Surrealist-themed upscale restaurant, hoping to lure to dine there. Probably not weird per se, but we’ll check out anything with a Dalí connection. Waiting for Dalí at Music Box Films.

WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE:

No guest scheduled for next week’s Pod 366, unless you count 366 scribe Rafael Moreira, who will test out the co-host chair aside Gregory J. Smalley. Stil, it’s a busy week in non-pod content, with the return of Pete Trbovich‘s popular “Weird View Crew” video review project as his brain tries to process Brainscan (1994). In written reviews, Shane Wilson goes for ‘s teen-lovers-on-the-lam fairy tale Criminal Lovers (1994), Giles Edwards visits the 2024 horror House of Screaming Glass, and Greg will take on Animalia (see above). Onward and weirdward!

CAPSULE: QUEENDOM (2023)

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Queendom is currently available for VOD purchase or rental.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Agniia Galdanova

FEATURING: Jenna Marvin

PLOT: A queer Russian performance artist fears for her freedom as she clashes with the law.

Still from Queendom (2023)

COMMENTS wrote that the responsibility of the artist is to “keep an essential margin of non-conformity alive. Thanks to them the powerful can never affirm that everyone agrees with their acts. That small difference is important.” It’s difficult to imagine anyone embodying this principle more explicitly than “drag” artist Jenna (sometimes spelled “Gena”) Marvin.

I put “drag” in quotes, because, although her act is drag-inspired and drag-adjacent, that term hardly describes Marvin’s bizarre performance art. The locals who are discomfited by her appearance clearly recognize that she is challenging gender norms—she is frequently met with the Russian word for “fag”—but her costumes are so otherworldly and alien that they don’t meet a strict definition of cross-dressing. Tall, lithe (almost a ballerina body), and completely hairless, Jenna adorns herself with elaborate makeup and an assortment of bizarre sartorial choices including ruffs, duct tape, giant pipe cleaners, tentacle fingers, surreal latticed headgear, and so on. The only consistently feminine element are the high heels that accessorize every outlandish outfit.  She ventures out in public to, at best, stares, and at worst verbal abuse and harassment. She also makes short films for Tik Tok and Instagram—often set in amazing Siberian wilderness locations—where she takes out her frustrations by thrashing around in the mud in wild interpretative dances. Most dangerously, she attends protests against the Putin regime. In one, she dresses in a stilleto-heeled mockery of the Russian flag, which gets her thrown out of college; when the Ukrainian invasion comes, she walks down a Moscow street nearly nude wrapped in homemade barbed wire, which earns her a citation from the police and the threat of a court date.

With no narration and only a tiny bit of direct questioning from the documentarian, Queendom is almost entirely a fly-on-the-wall affair. It conveys enough information to keep you grounded in the developing story, although some knowledge of recent developments in Putin’s Russia is helpful. Anti-LGTBQ sentiment is encoded into the law there; faces of protestors or Jenna ‘s artistic collaborators are often blurred or carefully kept out of frame out of a sense of caution. But the social ostracism Jenna faces is perhaps even more telling. (“We have fear and subservience in our DNA,” Jenna’s friend tells her, referencing the country’s Soviet legacy.) Jenna’s contentious relationship with her grandfather—who, we gather, raised her—takes up a large portion of the story. Grandpa supports her, in his way, but does not pretend to understand either her sexuality or her creativity. His main concern is that, if she’s going to continue dressing as a freak, she better figure out how to make some money at it.

In the end—mild spoiler alert—Jenna does not go to prison or (worse) succumb to conscription, but is able to flee Russia to a European capital where she feels at home in a far more tolerant society. She has more courage than most of us, but does not, like Alexei Navalny (whose protest she attended dressed as the flag) have the ultimate courage to become a martyr. And who among us would? If I were in her heels, I would have fled far faster. She may have a duty to keep a margin of nonconformity alive—but she also has a responsibility to keep herself alive.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…more than a mere cabaret act, Marvin’s myriad outfits are a thrilling combination of theatricality, circus craft, avant-garde performance art, high camp, and something more otherworldly besides — as if H.R. Giger and Derek Jarman had a grotesque, unsettling baby… as well as the straight documentarian footage, there are surreal vignettes, Marvin creating visual art with her outfits and her emotions.”–John Nugent, Empire (contemporaneous)

366 UNDERGROUND: THE OTHER DIMENSION (1992)

L’altra dimensione

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DIRECTED BY: Fabio Salerno

FEATURING: Francesco Rinaldi, Maddalena Vadacca; Luigi Sgroi, Nadia Rebeccato, Piero Belloto; Marco Monzani, Giorgia Chezzi

PLOT: In this horror anthology, a man plots abduction of the woman who’s left him, another plots possession of a woman who’s leaving him, and a third plots incorporation of a woman who’s no longer living.

COMMENTS: Three short films await us, projected in a dingy, dark room. Dust-covered sound equipment, cobwebbed film reels, and a menacing tinge of green fill the narrow screen, as an unseen entity inquires, “How many of you have found yourself the subject of incredible stories?” The Other Dimension spools out like miniature theater event: two shorts preceding a near-feature.

Salerno kicks off with “Delirium”, a fun variant of the “Bluebeard” folktale. Simply constructed, the segment features clever lighting, with the unearthly sparkles of the protagonist’s whiskey and glass capturing the titular condition, and giallo greens exuding organic menace. The film’s frame is put to compelling use as our angular stalker’s and victim’s fates collide. Most troublingly, Salerno manages an abstract, and impressively brief visual metaphor for rape, whose beauty left me quite unnerved. Closing with a shot of three heads by a bottle of Pepsi, Salerno wraps up the action and we are quickly brought to the squabbling exes of “Mortal Instinct.” The title is a bit heavy-handed, but the second short (the weakest of the three) goes by quickly enough. But not before it makes some remarks on machismo by way of Black Magic—with a bodily destruction sequence that may not appear realistic, but somehow manages to be ickily convincing nevertheless.

The main course of The Other Dimension, “Eros e Thanatos (Love & Death)”, shows off Salerno’s talents about as far as his means could allow. Some fifty minutes in length, its story of decayed love rotting into aberrant obsession left me, against considerable odds, wishing for a happy ending to fall upon the quiet protagonist. Judicious montage, narration, and, once again, a keen eye for lighting simultaneously showed how cleverly this was made—and how inexpensively. The lead actor, Marco Monzani, never plays a note wrong, whether he’s awkwardly paying the cabbie to get his ex-girlfriend moving on her way, or taking her by the hand as she emerges from the grave. “Eros e Thanatos” lies somewhere between Angst and After Hours, and its action, though scant, floats by on gusts of a sickly-sweet breeze.

Stumbling into this experience with no information beyond “low budget”, “Italian”, “horror”, and the IMDb filmmaker overview’s sole blurb, “Died 1993 · Milan, Italy (suicide)”, I really didn’t know what to expect from this, but it was certainly not that The Other Dimensions would have such impressive flashes of on-screen poetry. To the best of my knowledge, Fabio Salerno is a name known only to a small subsection of horror buffs. This final offering, completed not long before his death at the age of thirty-one, clearly shows that the world of cinema lost a promising voice far too soon.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[I]t’s a heck of a wild ride if you love scrappy homemade horror.” — Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (Blu-ray)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: COOL WORLD (1992)

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Beware

DIRECTED BY: Ralph Bakshi

FEATURING: Kim Basinger, Gabriel Byrne, Brad Pitt, voices of Charlie Adler, , Candi Milo

PLOT: Cartoonist Jack Deebs finds himself magically transported to the universe he thinks he has created, the Cool World, where sexpot doodle Holli Would is scheming to transform herself into a humanoid.

Still from Cool World (1992)

COMMENTS: The notion that Ralph Bakshi was ever going to make a four-quadrant, people-pleasing mainstream Hollywood smash seems utterly ludicrous. But damned if people weren’t thinking he would back in 1992. By all accounts, animation’s enfant terrible rode the Who Framed Roger Rabbit wave, selling on the spot his pitch for a horror film in which the half-toon offspring of an absent-father cartoonist seeks revenge. Then, a phalanx of studio executives, producers, and screenwriters set about methodically dismantling that initial pitch, to the point where Bakshi was handed an entirely new script just prior to the start of shooting. Perhaps he can be forgiven for losing some of his enthusiasm for the project.

The result is two different kinds of hybrids: a mix of live-action and animation, and an unholy mashup of a Ralph Bakshi film and the kind of movie that everyone else in Hollywood was looking for. (Supposedly, halfway through filming, Basinger told the director that she wanted to make a movie that could be shown to sick kids in hospitals, betraying a total lack of familiarity with his c.v.) In either case, the mix never really takes. The visual combination is surprisingly terrible, resembling Pete’s Dragon rather than the more recent achievements of Roger Rabbit. The interaction is sloppy, the eyelines are all over the place, and the physical sets are rendered two-dimensionally but without any sense of cartoonishness. As for the tone, it’s as schizophrenic as you might imagine. This may be one of the worst-edited films I’ve ever seen, with scenes covering different plotlines and delivering dramatically contrary emotions intercut and slammed together almost randomly, as though assembled by a hyperactive chihuahua. At any moment that you think you’re watching one storyline, you’ll need to brace yourself for an awkward and illogical transition, with the likelihood that you’ll soon be zipped back to the previous thread without warning. The best thing that can be said for this approach is that it neatly conceals the fact that Cool World is equally as incomprehensible as a linear story.

Part of the challenge is to figure out exactly whose movie it is. Are we watching the tale of an artist who is suddenly confronted by his work? (Practically no time at all is spent on Byrne’s backstory as the ostensible creator of this cartoon universe or on reactions to his predicament, so no.) Or perhaps it’s the artist confronting the unaddressed trauma from the incident that landed him in jail. (The revelation that Byrne was accused of murdering his wife for cheating on him is casually thrown away, left unproven either way, and never addressed again. Probably not that, then.) Okay, forget the artist. Could it really about the poor World War II veteran suffering from both PTSD and the tragic loss of his mother and now finds himself in a world beyond all understanding? (All that is jettisoned approximately two minutes after Pitt is transported to the Cool World, so no again.) Then surely it’s about the Machivellian efforts Holli Would expends in pursuit of her quest to become human. (Honestly, we don’t really know why Holli does anything she does, except that it involves a lot of rotoscoped dancing, so… maybe?) The story is so confused that late in the third act, someone entirely new tries to sneak in, a neighbor about whom we know exactly nothing but who is positioned as a possible love interest and as a foil for Holli, but is then almost comically ignored in the conclusion. Cool World is in the remarkable position of having only irrelevant characters.

The cast flounders amidst this mess. Basinger never seems to know which emotion she’s supposed to play (not entirely her fault), so her sex-kitten allure fails to jibe with her madness for power, a dynamic most evident in the inexplicable scene in which Holli sings a duet with Frank Sinatra, Jr. in which she barely seems to acknowledge the man’s existence. Pitt seems thoroughly embarrassed in every scene he’s in. At least he has an extended introduction to try and make something of himself; Byrne has no character at all, and the film knows it, since he’s barely onscreen for 30 seconds before yanking him into the animated universe, and then isn’t even remotely like himself once he is transformed into his cartoon avatar. Even the voice actors struggle, such as Adler’s choice to play Pitt’s dimwit partner with a voice that suggests Ed Wynn by way of Dom DeLuise.

I honestly can’t say enough bad things about Cool World, but for the purposes of this forum, I must offer this final condemnation: it’s not anywhere near as weird as it wants to be. At its best, Bakshi has littered his animated landscape with an unending supply of throwaway gags and random images, sometimes even overlaying them atop the main action, as if the spirit of Max Fleischer was perpetually trying to break out of the film. These adjunct characters capture Bakshi at his wildest, but those treats are fleeting. The core story is little more than warmed-over rabbit, garnished with sex jokes that don’t even have the guts to be proper smut. Holli Would? You’d best not.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… the animation here is really impressive and while a tighter plot and better storytelling definitely would have helped, Cool World winds up being weird enough in its own right to make it worth seeking out for fans of cult cinema or Bakshi’s unique visual style.” – Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop!

(This movie was nominated for review by Claudia V. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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