All posts by Giles Edwards

Film major & would-be writer. 6'3".

BOOK REVIEW: “GIRAFFES ON HORSEBACK SALAD” (2019, JOSH FRANK, TIM HEIDECKER, & MANUELA PERTEGA)

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The , even at their most mediocre, can do no wrong; Salvador Dalí, even at his most posthumous, can also do no wrong. The premise of Josh Frank’s adaptation is simple: to bring to life an rejected film treatment by one of Surrealism’s most famous practitioners intended to feature one of cinema’s most famous comedy troupes. The execution is straightforward, but took some years and considerable R&D before coming to life as a movie-length graphic novel. “Giraffes on Horseback Salad” is an impossible movie premise translated into a vibrant and often hilarious comic.

Two obvious difficulties presented themselves to Frank, Heidecker, & Pertega (a team that could have been a Marxist law firm): doing justice to two differently towering cultural icons. In the mid- to late-1930s, young Salvador was a political and artistic refugee. This quirky Spaniard developed a major “bro-crush” on Harpo Marx–going so far as to send him a full-scale harp made of cellophane-wrapped silverware and strung with barbed wire. Dalí regarded Harpo as a living, breathing Surrealist—not a member of the movement, but rather an actual Surrealist objet d’art, someone who would always subvert the norm, and who would always have the best, most illogical solution in his raggedy coat pocket.

How the two met (more than once) is explored in “Giraffes on Horseback Salad.” Suffice it to say, they got along famously, and hashed out a movie premise. That premise? “Giraffes” is actually more plot-heavy than most Marx Brothers movies, involving a wunderkind Spanish businessman (“Jimmy”), recently moved to New York City, who falls in love with the “Surrealist Woman.” In her employ are two chauffeurs/henchmen: Groucho and Chico Marx. As Jimmy pursues the Surrealist Woman’s affections, Groucho and Chico help him out. Silliness, subversion, and Surrealism ensue.

The challenge behind Josh Frank’s foray into theoretical cinema (to woefully misuse that term) is daunting, but he delivers, with screen-writing assistance from “Tim & Eric”‘s , and the wild visual stylings of Manuela Pertega. The “movie” plays like a bit of fan-fiction, admittedly, but it is skillfully wrought. Groucho’s and Chico’s exchanges may not be their best work (that, as far as I’m concerned, will always be found in Animal Crackers), but it isn’t their worst, and they always sound on paper they way they sounded in their movies. That is no small feat: Frank and Heidecker deliver the Marx goods; in parallel, dead Dalí and Pertega deliver the Surrealist goods. With so many goods delivered, it’s no surprise that the final result is… well, good. They even created a swinging period soundtrack to accompany the story.

In the interests of full disclosure, this wild ride of lines and lingo has virtually no Harpo in it—his identity is a “secret” slowly revealed as another character melts from a high-strung, but yearning-to-be-free [redacted]. I personally found this to be no problem: he was always my least favorite brother. However, I am not one to second-guess one of the 20th-century’s greatest artists, so hurrah for Harpo, hurrah for Salvador, and three chairs for the law firm of Frank, Heidecker, & Pertega.

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE AERIAL (2007)

La antena

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DIRECTED BY: Esteban Sapir

FEATURING: Rafael Ferro, Sol Moreno, Alejandro Urdapilleta, Jonathan Sandor, Julieta Cardinali

PLOT: Mr. TV’s grip on the city is nearly complete, since he controls the only citizen known to be able to speak; however, not only does he want to control the people’s only voice, he wants to rob them of their words as well.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: A scattered analogy is the easiest way to argue this: The Aerial is Guy Maddin directs Alex ProyasDark City with a comic-book noir-Expressionist flair in a silent city whose populace communicates in colliding sub-, super-, and fore-titles.

COMMENTS: I generally don’t like my sociopolitical allegories to slap me so hard across the face, but The Aerial can feel free to slap me all it wants to. As you might infer from that mental image, Esteban Sapir’s movie is incredibly heavy-handed. It drops symbols like hot rocks (rocks so hot that, at one point, there’s a blistering contrast between some broadcasting baddies and their swastika-shaped device and the broadcasting goodies with their Star of David-shaped device). It’s overt in its rhetoric: “They have taken our voices, but we still have our words.” And even if the evil “Dr. Y” had a bigger mouth-enlarger-screen attached to him, it couldn’t have screamed “NAZI SCIENTIST!” any louder. But at this point I am hopeful that you’re wondering, “Just what is going on?”

What’s going on: Mr. TV lords over a voiceless city. The only person who can speak—“The Voice”—is controlled by Mr. TV and his ubiquitous media concern (TV billboards cover the metropolis, and the populace is fed with “TV Food”). The protagonist (credited only as “The Inventor”) loses his job with the TV monopoly after losing another balloon-man advertising sign (which is just what it sounds like). When a parcel containing “eyes” is delivered to the wrong address (and is conveniently received by the Inventor’s daughter), we learn that The Voice’s eyeless son can also speak. Meanwhile, Mr. TV conspires with crazy, creepy scientist Dr. Y to use The Voice to extract everyone’s words.

By now you probably see why I am feeling forgiving. Plus, the movie has a constant visual *pop*. Going into it, I wondered at the “very little dialogue” remark in its description. That is a bald-faced lie. There’s plenty of dialogue, and it is All Over The Screen. Not being a Spanish-speaker, I read the subtitles, but these were subtitles for everywhere-titles. They moved like hands on a watch, they were completed with “o”s from a smoke ring, and they were hidden behind fingers before a reveal. This town, though voiceless, is full of communication: the citizens read these words that are “spoken”. Even the blind boy “reads lips” by feeling the text. This gimmick was astounding to behold, and marvelously executed.

The rest of the movie’s aesthetic is just as lively, feeling at times like something from Dziga Vertov after he slammed back a samovar of strong tea. The visual mash-up (piano hands playing a typewriter while a ballerina in a snow globe desperately maneuvers what looked like a DDR challenge, for example) is consistent throughout, and although patently artificial, feels natural. Nothing looks cheap, and the film is helped in no small part by the actors as they deftly walk the perilous tightrope of Expressionism and film noir styles. I still feel The Aerial‘s energy, and so must stop myself. Suffice it to say, I wish more moralistic beatings were this pleasurable to suffer through.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It has a deeply weird story that appears to have a number of interpretations, or variations on a theme: the iniquities of media mind-control… Try as I might, I couldn’t make friends with La Antena, despite its distinctiveness and self-possession. There was something whimsical and indulgent about it, and its convoluted, flimsy narrative – oddly forgettable – seemed to have no traction.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ESCAPE FROM THE ‘LIBERTY’ CINEMA (1990)

Ucieczka z kina ‘Wolnosc’

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DIRECTED BY: Wojciech Marczewski

FEATURING: Janusz Gajos, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Teresa Marczewska, Piotr Fronczewski, Wladyslaw Kowalski

PLOT: There’s a problem at the Liberty Cinema screening of a new movie, and it isn’t projector or sound issues: the film’s cast has decided to boycott their performance on screen, leaving the head censor nonplussed, particularly as there’s a concurrent outbreak of spontaneous opera singing afflicting the city’s populace.

COMMENTS: The world’s weariest apparatchik is having a bad day. His head is pounding, his hand is cut from a broken drinking glass, his stomach is wrenching after consuming contaminated tap water, his assistant eats cotton candy at a staggering rate despite admonitions otherwise, and his secretary informs him that actors in the film being screened at a local cinema have gotten stroppy and refuse to perform. What is our hero to do? True to his background, he forbids it, categorically: he forbids the theater manager’s sudden singing, he forbids the actors’ boycott, and most emphatically of all, he forbids the eating of cotton candy.

But it’s in vain.

Escape from the ‘Liberty’ Cinema was made and released shortly after the collapse of the Soviet-backed government in Poland, but is set during the bureaucratic death throes of that regime. When news of the screen actors’ rebellion reaches him, the local Communist party boss insists that the film play on—to sold-out shows, no less—but without attendees. “There will be cinema, but no viewers,” because if the Party likes anything, it’s being a bastion of (legitimate) art. If it likes two things, it’s hitting quotas, and so the money for the sold-out shows is extracted from a welfare fund manager who wants a spot on the local Party council. Deterioration—of the buildings, of the social fabric, of the soul—permeates the setting. The city’s denizens are so worn down they can’t even bother to rebel any more, leaving Art to don the mantle of subversion: either through the film’s recalcitrant performers, or the citizen’s spontaneous outbursts of opera, against their will.

Despite its full-throated cynicism, Escape is, somehow, a comedy. Our censor-hero is an eminently relatable character. As he witnesses the district’s descent into art-house subversion, his ailments alleviate, and he even gets in some laughs chatting with the performers on display at the ‘Liberty’. The projectionist practices poor English, seemingly responding to job (or consulate?) interview questions running through his mind as he prepares the reels, again and again, three times a day, to screen for an empty house. The cotton-candy chomping assistant receives elocution lessons from the in-movie movie’s leading lady, eventually wrapping his mouth around the correct pronunciation of, “Give me back the coat!”

Writer/director Marczewski mercilessly skewers authorities—even raising the specter of Poland’s complicity with the Nazis’ genocide—but simultaneously loves each of his film’s characters. I can imagine he may even have written himself in as the wunderkind critic sent from Warsaw. Seated in the front row, this impish boy of a man beams with pride when he shows off “true” cinema (appropriately, Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo) to the Communist functionaries. Beyond even his successful social commentary, Marczewski somehow manages to meld utmost cynicism with tender pathos.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A very clever absurdist comedy that can be enjoyed either with or without its sharp social and political commentary…”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (DVD)

CAPSULE: “THE MIDNIGHT GOSPEL” (2020)

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CREATED BY: Pendleton Ward, Duncan Trussell

FEATURING: Voices of Duncan Trussell, Phil Hendrie, various guests

PLOT: Clancy lives by a run-down farm in a run-down house and uses a run-down multiverse simulator to find interviewees for his spacecast.

Still from The Midnight Gospel, Season 1, Ep. 1

COMMENTS: One of the first things you’ll notice when beginning Netflix’s new series The Midnight Gospel is that it is not of this Earth, at least not of a specific time and place. The landscapes, décor, and props evoke everything from ’50s sci-fi novels to hippie chic to ’90s CD-ROM games, with a color scheme that blasts through it all with as much brightness you can get away with while still being easy on the eyes. One of the second things you’ll notice is that the show’s host—and co-creator—has the voice of a “woke”-but-laid-back1 early 20-something hipster; this voice is, apparently, provided by a forty-six year old comedian. And that, dear reader, is the full extent of my research for this show.

The main focus of each episode is the conversation between Clancy Gilroy (Duncan Trussell) and his special guest for that adventure, but I’d like to talk first about The Midnight Gospel’s visual appeal. The drawings have a meditative quality. The line work is all soft; even the corners feel soft. While it never quite spills over into “organic”, the movement of characters (and despite this television show’s origins, there’s plenty going on on-screen) is somewhere between easy-going and fatalistic. I bring up that word, “fatalistic”, because more likely than not, Clancy and his guests will suffer through some sort of massacre or dismemberment (for example, the calm conversational tones of Dr. Drew Kinsky as the “little president” of an Earth doomed by a zombie apocalypse contrasts amusingly with the nonstop violence in the background; soft-looking violence, of course). Whether being gored by undead hordes, or traveling through a meat processing plant as the meat being processed, there’s a happy squish for the eye to go along with the philosophical/sociological discussion dominating the dialogue.

When you boil it down, The Midnight Gospel is a podcast between a somewhat enlightened, somewhat leftist fellow (I almost wrote “young man” from remembering his voice, but no: he’s forty-six) as he speaks with all manner of intellectuals about drugs, life, death, and so on. That isn’t to say that there’s a strong demarcation between the conversation and the visuals. During a discussion of drugs, “little president” is busy defending the White House against invading zombies. At the meat processing plant, a different guest has his eye removed and consumed by one of that world’s clown children, exclaiming, “That kid just took my fucking eye!”

If you aren’t interested in informed-but-meandering discussions, you will find this cartoon rather trying. If, however, you are looking for a little consciousness-expanding conversation paired with some casually-extreme outlandish visual back-drops, then you are in for a treat. I have already admitted that I’ve done virtually no background research for this; I’ll admit now that I’m only two episodes in—but that’s because I couldn’t wait to write this. I’ll be heading back to Netflix to view the rest right now…

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“These eight hallucinogenic explorations into life, love, death, and everything in between are unlike anything else on television. I promise you. One part podcast, one part Daliesque fantasy, this is a series that’s looking to rewire your brain and expand your mind.”–Umapagan Ampikaipakan, Goggler (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PIGSTY (1969)

Porcile

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DIRECTED BY: Pier Paolo Pasolini

FEATURING: , Jean-Pierre Léaud, Alberto Lionello, ,

PLOT: In contemporary Germany, a son of an industrialist discusses abstract social principles with his fiancée as his father plans a merger with an old, pre-war associate; in medieval Europe, a young cannibal forms a gang of bandits before eventually being trapped by the local militia.

Still from Pigsty (porcile) 1969

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Pigsty qualifies not only for efficiency’s sake: as two narratives, it would be like getting two Apocrypha titles for the price of one. But each of the narrative strains is an oddity in its own right: one, an ambiguous morality tale stuffed with art-house flourishes; the other, an obvious morality tale stuffed with macabre social commentary.

COMMENTS: There is only one moment of near-tenderness in Pigsty, during an encounter between a young, unnamed scavenger and a young, unnamed militiaman on a blasted hillside in Medieval Europe. The militiaman has been straggling behind the main procession of armed soldiers, whistling as he idles. The two men awkwardly encounter each other, exchange glances, and for the briefest moment one might believe that something romantic might ensue—but almost immediately they fire their weapons, fight with their swords, and one kills, and eats, the other. Pigsty‘s true tenor is shown, not least when the cannibal throws the decapitated head of the guardsman into an steaming thermal vent on the mountainside that overlooks the lifeless clearing. Sacrifice.

Two parallel narratives intertwine as counterpoints, but each reinforces the other’s message. Modern life, with all its trappings (as emphasized by the fiancée character when she opens the contemporary story with the line, “We’re two, rich bourgeois, Julian”), turns out to be no less violent—and no less focused on survival—than life in the Dark Ages. While Pasolini uses wholly visual storytelling for the historical half, he dissects 1960s society via endless conversations between allegorical stereotypes. Julian, the scion of a major industrial concern, finds himself caught between two worlds: his fiancée’s conformist radicalism, and his father’s conformist classism; he retreats from what he sees as a mindless game of consumerist conquest by frequenting the pigsty on the family’s estate. What of love? His fiancée challenges him early on, “You kissed me!” He responds, “I also scratch myself.”

The focus quickly moves from the young man  to the father. Though wheelchair-bound, he derives plenty of joie de vivre from his business, his harp, and many, many conversations about the nature of class and society—finding the hilarity of it all from the side opposite his son. The patriarch is an ex-Nazi in the prosperous half of a divided Germany; his recollections of his political past consist exclusively of “humorous” anecdotes and memories. To illustrate this point—overtly, to the point of heavy-handedness—Pasolini presents this smirking cripple in a bedtime scene where he wishes he had been able to have his caricature drawn by George Grosz, with a Brechtian tune to back it up.

These characters without principle—or, at best, woefully misguided principles—are a direct contrast to the filmmaker. Pasolini was a complex man, but he was filled with disdain for the establishment (specifically, any of them). His views can be distilled as “anti-authoritarian”. There are countless references to parse: the allure of the pigsty, the undercurrent of homoeroticism in the historical narrative, and the nebulous confession of the scavenger (“I killed my father, I ate human flesh, and I quiver with joy”), with its religious overtones. But Pasolini isn’t a subtle filmmaker; even if any given piece of the story he’s telling is veiled in arcane symbolism, his message is always crystal clear.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an exquisitely revolting satire…”–Time Out

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE WOLF HOUSE (2018)

La casa lobo

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DIRECTED BY: Joaquín Cociña, Cristóbal León

FEATURING: Voices of Amalia Kassai, Rainer Krause

PLOT: Maria flees her community to avoid punishment and finds an abandoned house; fearing the wolf outside, she sequesters herself with two pigs which she raises as her children.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: As an experimental stop-motion animation, The Wolf House already has a leg-up against most competition. It becomes a lock for candidacy through its sinister storytelling framework, sociopolitical overtones, and the fact that you watch its settings and inhabitants literally being built up and broken down right before your eyes as its story unfolds.

COMMENTS: Everyone knows that idle hands are the Devil’s workshop; Joaquín Cociña’s and Cristóbal León’s are, on the other hand, a two-man workshop revealing the Devil’s evil. Stop-motion is undoubtedly the most time-consuming filmmaking method; but sometimes, as in The Wolf House, it is the most appropriate. Lacking both real-time film’s quick capture of reality and the infinite malleability of “pure” animation’s ink and lines, stop-motion is a demanding mistress, but one that allows for the uncanniest uncanny valleys and the most “other” other-worldliness. Cociña and León hand-assemble, hand-craft, and hand-paint a dark fairy tale amalgam that itself masks a far darker period in history.

After World War II, a number of prominent German officials fled Europe and cropped up in various points South American. One of those places was the “Colonia Dignidad,” a religious cult compound in Chile. For years, tales of hardship and child abuse drifted through its fortified walls, and the framing of The Wolf House is taken from this period. Presented as a counter-propaganda piece to dispel rumors of a “horrible secret” about this truly “isolated and pure” colony of agrarians, The Wolf House informs the viewer that the film they are about to see was found in the society’s vaults (lovingly “restored” by none other than Cociña and León). The story it tells, in its morphing and cryptic way, concerns a young woman fleeing a harsh punishment meted out by her village’s elders, but eventually learning that the parents know best.

The framing “documentary” is creepily reassuring, easing tonally into the movie proper. For that, it harnesses a variety of stop-motion techniques. Beyond the simplest form (move figure, shoot camera), there’s also “live-painting” animation. A young woman, Maria, seeks shelter in an abandoned house. Upon entering, the walls form in front of the camera, and decorations—bookshelves, clocks, framed pictures—appear and move toward their designated positions as Maria looks around. A woman’s figure eventually appears in a doorway (or mirror?) before branching from the walls in the form of a papier mâché figurine, who eventually finds two pigs—which, through a game she narrates, eventually morph into human children.

The Wolf House is only seventy-five minutes, about ten of which are credits, with ten more being the “documentary” bookends. But it contains countless chilling allusions. As a paneled window is painted on the wall, it ever so briefly appears as a swastika before the rest of the lines are filled in. There’s a mystical honey that causes children who consume it to change from mestizos into blonde Teutonic ideals (the surrounding documentary advertises the German commune’s prized honey). Maria’s fairy tale within the fairy tale concerns animals fleeing into the ground to escape “the wolf”, and a magical tree thanking her for leading them there; in reality, this alludes to the mass graves on the Colonia Dignidad’s grounds. With stop-motion, Cociña and León find that perfect abutment between reality and nightmare; with The Wolf House, they find the perfect abutment between parable and horror.

The Wolf House is currently streamable from distributor KimStim’s website at first-run rental prices ($12 for 26 hours); we’ll update this review when the availability changes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If an Orwellian fable were to be visualized by a surrealist in the vein of Salvador Dali, the result would look and feel something like ‘The Wolf House’… this shape-shifting, trippy nightmare from filmmakers Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña startles and terrifies in equal measure, while putting forth an uncompromising examination of fascism in a way that only animation can do.”–Tomris Laffly, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: CAN’T KILL THIS (2019)

AKA Fuck You Immortality

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DIRECTED BY: Federico Scargiali

FEATURING: Bill Hutchens, Josephine Scandi, Brutius Selby

PLOT: An old drug buddy from the 1970s appears to be immortal, so Tony and Kacy try to track him down, and then try to kill him.

COMMENTS: There is a minor character in Can’t Kill This who reminded me of a high school video project that has plagued my memory on and off since its completion. When stumbling around the English countryside looking for Joe, hippies Tony and Kacy accidentally knock on the caravan door of a luchador (el Perro Callejero—“the Street Dog”). Outside his domicile is a junkyard overrun with chickens, which he refers to as “pollo loco”; this just happens to have been the original name for my final film project back during my senior year. We had filmed quite a lot of ancillary shots for what was intended to be a Blair Witch Project spoof (those of you old enough to remember that movie’s cinema run probably cannot blame a flippant seventeen-year-old for feeling inspired). However! (And this is the exciting bit.) About two-thirds through shooting, there was a massive snow storm and we lost all possibility of continuity. And so, on the fly, and by the seat of our respective pants, we threw together an alternative just days before the deadline: Mister Psychopants.

Now that you know a little more about me, let me tell you what you need to know about Can’t Kill This: it was likely done with the earnestness of a late-teenage filmmaker, and, indeed, adopts the same genre (mockumentary). However, Scargiali’s movie was not done last-minute by a gang of high schoolers. These facts don’t necessarily always show, however, as slogging through the eighty minutes of run-time, I found myself laughing thrice (and bear in mind that this is supposed to be a stoner comedy). The first humorous scene involved an amusing secret “door-knock” code bit, touching upon the correct pronunciation of “Fhtang.”. The second funny scene involved Tony in a bathtub having a narrative adventure with two rubber duckies. I do not remember the specifics of the third one, but I do know that I laughed more than twice.

Despite my chirpy, mindless optimism about filmmakers and their directorial debuts, I’m not sure I can honestly say that I look forward to what Scargiali gets up to in the future. I did watch all of Can’t Kill This, and I liked the premise—but I would have much preferred the movie that had formed in my mind when I saw the ominous poster and read whatever bare-bones description came my way before volunteering for this assignment. To wrap this up with a six-word review, “Totally watchable, but I wouldn’t bother.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“With the destination that is hard to pin down, Can’t Kill This is a road trip through odd feel-good vibes, dark comedy, and slapstick gore… It could easily be a demented road-movie cousin to ‘Best in Show’ (2000) with an extra dose of LSD and practical gore.”–Rev Terry, VideoReligion.com (contemporaneous)