Category Archives: List Candidates

LIST CANDIDATE: L’AGE D’OR (1930)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: Gaston Modot, Lya Lys

PLOT: What plot? The screenplay was co-written by Salvador Dalí! A man and a woman long to have sex, but for various reasons they never do. Along the way, other things happen for no reason at all.

Still from L'Age D'or (1930)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This is a direct follow-up to Un Chien Andalou, arguably the weirdest film ever made; it’s the only other film by the Bunuel/Dalí combo; and it’s the only other official Surrealist movie by Buñuel. So it ought to be a shoo-in. Unfortunately, as with so many sequels, it utterly fails to live up to the promise of the first film.

COMMENTS: Although this is often described as a collaboration between Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, they fell out before shooting started, so Dalí’s contribution was probably minimal (though depending on who you ask, he may have contributed little to Un Chien Andalou either). Scripted to run for 20 minutes, it somehow ballooned out of control and tripled in length during shooting. Fortunately, the aristocratic patron who provided the finance simply reached for his checkbook and told them to carry on regardless. Or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it. Un Chien Andalou is 16 minutes long, which is about as long as that level of blistering irrationality can realistically be maintained for, both in terms of the scriptwriter’s imagination and the audience’s patience. Stretched to just over an hour, the same kind of thing feels baggy, and is at times downright boring.

After a totally irrelevant prologue—the first three minutes are a documentary about scorpions—the film proper begins with a ragged man observing four elderly bishops sitting on a rock by the sea mumbling prayers. He rushes to a tumbledown shack and informs the other ragged men within, who appear to be guerrillas of some kind, that the “Majorcans” have arrived. In what seems to be a typically sly joke expressing Buñuel’s growing disillusionment with the Surrealist movement (he left in 1932), these men listlessly perform utterly pointless activities, and when they take up arms to combat the forces of religion, they’re so crippled and worn-out that almost all of them collapse, apparently from sheer apathy, before making it as far as the coast. The one man who gets there has just time to observe that the bishops have spontaneously turned into skeletons anyway before he too collapses. In an otherwise nonsensical speech, the most listless of the lot tells the others that they’re sure to win because they have paintbrushes. And their leader is played by the Surrealist painter Max Ernst (who remained a faithful Surrealist, so maybe the joke’s on him too).

At this point a flotilla of small boats arrives, and numerous civic dignitaries and smartly-dressed persons disembark. It becomes apparent that the death of the four Majorcan bishops has inspired these people to build the city of Rome (in 1930). However, the ceremony of laying the foundation stone is interrupted by the first appearance of the two protagonists, who are attempting to have very loud sex in a pool of mud. Not surprisingly, they are prevented by the outraged crowd and dragged away.

Not a bad beginning, but from this point on, it’s strictly by-the-numbers Surrealism. Gaston Modot, a very prolific character actor, is suitably intense, but kicking puppies and blind men is a poor substitute for slashing a woman’s eyeball! Lya Lys at one point comes across as the world’s worst actress, and is obviously using an autocue, but this must have been deliberate, since she too had a mainstream career (weird movie buffs can see her in The Return Of Doctor X, in which Humphrey Bogart, for the first and last time, plays a vampire). The almost-consummation of their passion goes on far too long without being anywhere near as intense or explicit as the similar scene in Un Chien Andalou. Priests and bishops in vaguely comical situations recur time and time again, we see the first use of Buñuel’s characteristic “incongruous animal indoors” trope, random passers-by kick violins down the street or have loaves on their heads, and so on. But it all seems a bit tired.

There are standout moments—a man cold-bloodedly killing his son for the most trivial of reasons, a suicide falling not to the floor but the ceiling, Lya Lys passionately sucking the toe of a statue—but not enough of them. There’s a tacked-on ending, in which, as a lengthy intertitle informs us, a quartet of degenerates emerge from a bestial orgy (actually the one described in the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom), and one of them turns out to be Jesus Christ. It comes across as a rather childish ploy to get the film banned on purpose.

Ultimately this is an ambitious failure, and not really very interesting. So many specific motifs from this film cropped up 44 years later in The Phantom Of Liberty that the latter movie could not implausibly be viewed as a secret remake. Perhaps Buñuel, always a lover of in-jokes, knowing that his career was almost over, was making his biggest in-joke of all?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an exhilarating, irrational masterpiece of censor-baiting chutzpah.”–Jamie Russel, BBC (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (1974)

The Phantom of Liberty is now Certified Weird. Please visit the official entry.

Le Fantôme de la Liberté

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , , Michel Piccoli,

PLOT: There isn’t one! Numerous bizarre situations are briefly explored, but none are resolved. It’s the ultimate shaggy dog movie.

Still from The Phantom of Liberty (1974)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Monks behaving badly are randomly exposed to exhibitionist sadomasochism. Two people are somehow the same person. A spider-fixated family find architecture pornographic. The dead make phone-calls from their coffins. People who feel no shame about sitting on lavatories together are embarrassed and disgusted by any mention of eating. Etc., etc., etc…

COMMENTS: As with the other two films (Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire) in Buñuel’s very loose swansong trilogy, Phantom of Liberty gives us a sense of an artist tying up loose ends. In many ways Phantom is one of his most Surrealist movies, as if he was revisiting the glories of his youth one more time. And yet, it should be remembered that, although he is often described as a Surrealist filmmaker, Buñuel formally abandoned Surrealism in 1932, being forced to choose between active membership of the Spanish Communist Party, which regarded Surrealism as a decadent bourgeoise affectation, or belonging to a pretentious club that mucked about with art and pretended it mattered. Or maybe, like most other short-lived Surrealists, he simply couldn’t stand the movement’s awful, awful founder, André Breton. Since Buñuel was a control-freak himself, the latter explanation is perhaps the more probable.

Given his obvious intelligence and love of complex in-jokes and hidden meanings, it’s significant that in an interview recorded around this time, Buñuel says—very perceptively—that Surrealism triumphed on a superficial level, while utterly failing to change the world in any way that truly mattered. (In the same interview, he jokes about making a melodramatic but utterly insincere deathbed conversion to Catholicism just to wind up those of his friends who militated against religion in the most humorless way imaginable). Sure enough, The Phantom Of Liberty uses almost exactly the same dramatic structure as “Monty Python’s Flying Circus“: the ultimate manifestation of unofficial Pop Surrealism. And yet, given the very short difference in time between the creation of Python and this film, and the implausibility of an initially marginal BBC series being sufficiently internationally famous for Buñuel to have already seen it in a language he understood, it has to be assumed that any similarities are purely coincidental.

And similarities there most certainly are! The episode in which a crazed sniper randomly kills numerous people (which was cut from early UK TV broadcasts on grounds of unacceptable nastiness) and then, having been found guilty, is unaccountably released with no consequences at all, and instantly becomes tremendously popular, is almost identical to a Python sketch aired the previous year. Plagiarism? I doubt it. Zeitgeist? Almost certainly. More significantly, the entire film follows the Python ethos of not wasting a good idea just because you can’t think of a punchline. Problem ending the scene? Forget it, and arbitrarily move on to something else!

As more than one critic has observed, Richard Linklater’s 1991 Slacker is remarkable for being the first film (or at any rate, the first film that anyone’s heard of) to use the technique invented by Buñuel 17 years previously. But actually they’re wrong. Richard Linklater shows us vignettes from the lives of various people who are going nowhere, then cuts away to somebody else because if we followed this particular non-story any longer it would become boring. Buñuel gives us glimpses into situations that have no rational explanation whatsoever, and abandons them because any punchline he could possibly provide would be an anticlimax. The title, insofar as it refers to anything, seems to invoke a spirit which pervades the movie without ever being in any way discernible to the characters or the audience—a direct reference to The Exterminating Angel, in which the Angel of Death is supposedly responsible for the inexplicable events without directly manifesting itself at any point in the film. The characters drift into completely random situations, every one of which involves a massive breach of social norms, or laws even more fundamental than that. And nobody notices a thing. The entire film could, if the title is taken literally, be said to document the progress of an invisible and otherwise totally undetectable entity that capriciously drifts around altering the nature of reality for reasons all its own. And that’s the spirit in which it should be viewed. Buñuel’s best film? No. Buñuels weirdest film? Definitely in the top three. Worth watching? Yes! Just don’t expect a satisfying sense of closure.

PS – In recent years certain scenes in this movie have been played out for real in the UK by radical Islamists with no understanding of irony, who used their democratic right to demonstrate to hold demonstrations against democracy. What a pity Buñuel didn’t live to see it! Though maybe he wouldn’t have been all that surprised.

PPS – Are there any other films featuring two Bond villains?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“An uproarious summary of Luis Bunuel’s surrealistic concerns… a crazy, subversively funny film about convention-bound characters who have a hard time dealing with sexuality and freedom.”–Michael Scheinfeld, TV Guide

(This movie was nominated for review by “viqman.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

THE CAMERAMAN (1928) AND FILM (1965)

Both  and Harold Lloyd warned Buster Keaton against signing with MGM studios. Keaton was enticed by a financially lucrative offer, but his peers cautioned that such a deal would not be worth losing artistic control. Keaton signed anyway and, in his own words, “wound up making the biggest mistake of my life.” MGM in the 1920s was the closest a Hollywood studio ever came to a fascist state and, as predicted, Keaton discovered he had sold his soul. He was finished as an artist.

The Cameraman (1928) was Keaton’s first film for MGM and studio interference quickly became the status quo. The Cameraman primarily succeeds because Irving Thalberg succumbed to Keaton’s pleas for “some” improvisation (much to director Edward Sedgwick’s chagrin). Although it was a box office hit, this would be Keaton’s last film in which he had any artistic input. For the most part, The Cameraman began the new formula of strictly following badly written scripts. Furthermore, Keaton was never allowed to direct another feature.

Although Keaton did not take writing credit, Cameraman follows his “keep the narrative simple” style and builds to a kinetic finale. Buster plays a street photographer in love with a pretty girl (Marceline Day) trying desperately to win her by landing a job at the newspaper she works at.

Still from The Cameraman (1928)Keaton improvised two scenes, one of which has him playing baseball (by himself) at Yankee Stadium. It’s a brilliantly executed vignette. In the second Keaton undresses and dresses in a claustrophobic changing room shared with an oversized man.

However, it is the grand scale Tong War in Chinatown that burns the celluloid. Naturally, the stereotypes abound, but the sequence is so loaded and breathless that there is hardly time to notice. Keaton and a monkey sidekick (!) manage a daring escape. Naturally, the pretty girl winds up on our hero’s arm, even if she’s not much more than a mannequin. Still, The Cameraman is a near masterpiece, and it is the last Keaton film worth watching with one strange exception…

Samuel Becket’s Film (1968) is a short, and that may be the sole reason for not seriously considering it a certified 366 Weird Movie status. By this time Keaton had been reduced to a second-rate Stooge by MGM. Various DVD collections of Keaton’s “Lost Years” seem to indicate a revisionist thought that hidden treasures lie within those sound shorts and Z-grade features. Although, on occasion, a slither of  the Keaton magic might shine through, for the most part they are a painfully embarrassing lot.

Chaplin had offered Keaton a role in his Limelight (1952). Strangely, some still consider this Keaton’s comeback. Actually, in Limelight we see Chaplin’s saccharine meltdown in overdrive, and even though it has a few personal moments, the good parts are encased in much dreck, and Continue reading THE CAMERAMAN (1928) AND FILM (1965)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE (1972)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , , , , Stéphane Audran,

PLOT: Six friends attempt to have dinner together, but repeatedly fail for increasingly bizarre reasons.

Still from Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: A plot so simple it’s barely a plot at all starts out small and, through masterly use of the running gag, steadily builds throughout the film, getting more and more absurd until the apocalyptic finale. And if that’s not enough, there are numerous dream-sequences, sometimes nested inside one another, and not always clearly distinguishable from reality. Also, undead policemen!

COMMENTS: Leaving aside Un Chien Andalou, which will forever be in a class of its own, Discreet Charm might just be Buñuel’s masterpiece. The Academy Awards Committee certainly thought so when they gave it the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1973. No close-ups of razor-slashed eyeballs this time; this is a nice, gentle, middle-of-the-road crowd-pleaser. Except that that description would be as misleading as taking the title literally. It’s true that there are no pianos full of dead donkeys, but we do get an electrified piano used as an instrument of torture, from which cockroaches stream as the convulsions of the screaming victim create impromptu musique concréte-–an act for which the policeman responsible is first murdered by outraged student radicals (offscreen), and then condemned to return as a gory apparition (onscreen) every Bloody Sergeant’s Day (June 14th, if you’re thinking of throwing a party). There’s definitely something unusual going on here!

So unusual that “whose subconscious are we in now?” is a very pertinent question, 38 years before it was asked in Inception. One particularly bizarre scene turns out to be only a dream, and the action picks up where it left off. But then it turns out that this too is a dream, and the character who dreamed the first dream is not only still dreaming, but dreaming that he’s somebody else! Confused yet? The visibly nervous professional movie critic in the useless featurette on the Region 2 DVD clearly was. He correctly points out that this is a dream within a dream. Not so tricky, since the film explicitly says so. What he seems to have missed is that the dream-within-a-dream is probably a continuation of the previous scene, in which implausible events take place, and characters who don’t appear in the rest of the movie behave very oddly. One of them entertains the assembled company by recounting a dream about his dead mother, which we see. So what he have here is almost certainly a dream within a dream within a dream…

Then again, other incredibly strange things occur which aren’t dreams at all. Or are they? There isn’t any sure way to decide which parts of this film are “real”, and ultimately it doesn’t matter: it’s fiction, so none of it’s real. Still, there’s obviously some strange kind of logic holding it all together, even if we aren’t told what it is. This is why, like , Luis Buñuel belongs on the A-list of weird film-makers. Throwing the rules out of the window is enough to make a movie “weird” in the sense of weird-for-the-sake-of-weird, but to reach the next level, you need to replace what you threw out with something else. Buñuel understood this perfectly, and plays with it all the way through the film. A very distinctive object features in what turns out to be a dream, yet reappears in the scene that follows: a subtle clue that we’re still in the dream (there’s absolutely no way  wasn’t taking notes here). But another dream seems to be genuinely prophetic. And so on: a tangled web indeed!

Almost every joke follows the pattern of the main plot by starting off quite tamely, but turning out to have at least one more layer. The initial appearance of a saintly bishop results in his mild humiliation and all-round embarrassment, due to a silly and quickly resolved misunderstanding that wouldn’t be out of place in a Seventies sitcom. But just when you think Buñuel’s attitude to the church has mellowed with age, it turns out that the unsuspecting monsignor is being set up for a punchline which, when we finally get to it, is as dark as they come.

This film is not weird in the sense that watching it is an endurance test. This is mainstream weirdness with excellent production values. But don’t let that fool you: every single thing that happens here is as off-kilter as the attitudes of the main characters, who honestly believe that the lower classes are subhuman because they don’t know the correct way to drink a dry martini. Discreet Charm may or may not make the List, but it’s definitely on mine.

“Buñuel seems to have finally done away with plot and dedicated himself to filmmaking on the level of pure personal fantasy… We are all so accustomed to following the narrative threads in a movie that we want to make a movie make ‘sense,’ even if it doesn’t. But the greatest directors can carry us along breathlessly on the wings of their own imaginations, so that we don’t ask questions; we simply have an experience.”–Roger Ebert, Great Movies

LIST CANDIDATE: UPSTREAM COLOR (2013)

UPDATE (3/5/2014): Upstream Color has been officially inducted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Here is the Certified Weird entry.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins

Upstream Color

PLOT: After a man known as the Thief drugs a young woman and steals most of her money, she loses her job and some of her memory, and needs to start an entirely new life; a year later she is romantically pursued by an incorrigible businessman, but their relationship is hindered by her traumatic experience and the enterprising man behind it.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Approaching the narrative in a dreamlike state, Upstream Color is a surreal and beautiful journey through lingering trauma, tinged with elements of science-fiction and romantic drama. Its convoluted, unstructured story is at first distancing, but the imaginative visuals, strong performances, and compelling use of sound make for a weird movie that’s also emotionally resonant.

COMMENTS: Opening with choppy shots of a mysterious drug operation involving white worms with unique mind-altering properties, Upstream Color devotes most of its first act to Kris (Amy Seimetz), a special effects coordinator who is knocked out, drugged up with a worm, and essentially taken hostage in her own home for a few days. The worm has a kind of brainwashing effect, allowing the Thief (Thiago Martins) to coerce Kris into signing away all that she owns. Left alone and discovering the living worm crawling around inside her skin, she is sonically drawn to a pig farm where the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) cuts it out of her and harvests it for future use. She wakes up at home with no memory of the experience, and only an empty bank account and unemployment to look forward to. It is a deeply unsettling sequence, played out in short, calculated bursts that emphasize the strange and harrowing process of Kris’ mental infiltration. The Thief remains faceless and monotone while she unquestioningly follows his every command, which primarily involve making her repetitively perform mundane tasks as a means of keeping her weak and controlled.

Fast-forwarding: after things have settled down, Kris, with a new haircut and an unexciting job at a copy shop, is harsh and distrustful. Her first interactions with Jeff (Shane Carruth) are halting and unsure, choppy and without resolution, and as their relationship grows deeper their scenes together become repetitive and disjointed. Both seem to have confused memories. The soft-glow blur of their romance is cut through with an otherworldly hum that seems to take over Kris, and she and Jeff begin to realize there are greater forces at work here. Their unconscious repetitive actions echo each other, and they see connections in each other’s fragmented psyches. Through it all the Sampler watches them, maintaining the pig farm where he harvests the mind-altering worms, with each pig serving as some kind of psychic link to the humans he’s operated on. His stony, unreadable demeanor makes him an ominous figure, and his sound-gathering trips are fascinating while also somehow menacing.

Upstream Color is notable for its combination of different genre and story elements that are blended and transformed through Carruth’s innovative narrative and filmic techniques. Diffused light and extreme close-ups mix with quick-cut editing and microscopic natural wonders, along with some graphic medical procedures and animal abuse. The loving attention to sound—both effects and background score—is clear, effectively creating an at-times anxious and at-times comforting atmosphere. The film is composed of little details that may or may not be important, as the bigger picture gradually, partially reveals itself, so that every scene is equally gripping and enigmatic. While the story is often ambiguous, Carruth does not lose sight of his characters, and in fact the performance of Amy Seimetz as the central figure grounds much of the film. As a whole it is certainly obscure and utterly dreamlike, and most viewers will likely leave unsure of exactly what went on, but certain that whatever it was, it was beautiful.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “To watch the haunting, disturbing ‘Upstream Color’ is to feel like you’re inside not one of your own dreams but someone else’s, a dream that’s both compelling and unnerving in ways you can’t put your finger on.” –Kenneth Turan, LA Times.

CAPSULE: THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE (1977)

That Obscure Object of Desire has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies ever made. Please visit the official Certified Weird entry. Comments on this post are closed.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , Carole Bouquet, Angela Molina

PLOT: A rich French businessman courts a beautiful young Spanish woman over the years, but although she sometimes professes to love him, she continually refuses to consummate the relationship.

Still from That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Obscure Object is one of Buñuel’s best, but not one of his weirdest. If you merged the two actresses who inexplicably share the role of Conchita into one, you could almost mistake this parody of obsessive bourgeois eroticism for a normal comedy—almost.

COMMENTS: The “gimmick” of two actresses playing the object of desire is the high-concept highlight of That Obscure Object of Desire, but make no mistake: the casting was not a desperation move to salvage some sort of novelty value out of a dull script. Buñuel’s final film is one of his most tightly controlled and plotted movies, the work of a 77-year old master intent on putting the final punctuation on a distinguished career. The story is simple: prosperous, respectable, middle-aged Mathieu meets 18-year old serving girl Conchita and attempts, and fails, to seduce her. She leaves his service, but as the years go on he continues to encounter her, whether by chance or by design, and gradually he works his way closer and closer to her heart—but although she declares her love for him, she never surrenders her virtue. Buñuel and his totally committed trio of actors push the dramatic scenario further than you would think possible: the erotic tension builds and builds until surely, you think, something has to break. Either Conchita will give in or Mathieu will tire of being teased and rid himself of her forever. And yet, after each frustrating encounter, the bourgeois businessman comes back for more, and Conchita is willing to continue the dance. There are moments when rape seems inevitable, but that solution would wreck the game, so they push right to the brink before pulling back and resetting.

It’s not all unbearable erotic tension: Obscure Object is, at heart, a droll and absurd comedy, full of sophisticated, off-kilter jokes; even if you don’t always get them, you feel smarter for chuckling at them. Some gags are obvious: there’s a variation on the old “waiter, there’s a fly in my soup!’ joke—this time, it’s in a martini. One night, Mathieu lures Conchita to his bedroom; Angelia Molina asks “can I change?” and goes into the bathroom to put on her nightgown; she emerges as Carole Bouquet. At other times the humor is more oblique and surreal, and we’re not sure what to make of it. Mathieu tells his story to traveling companions on a train; one is a dwarf, and a professor of psychology—but he only gives private lessons. A Spanish fortune teller carries a pig wrapped in a blanket like a baby. The movie is set in a Europe where terrorist bombings are a background fact of life; one of the revolutionary groups is named “the Revolutionary Army of Baby Jesus.”

This being a Buñuel film, there’s a constant subtle mockery of the unexamined values of the middle class. Mathieu casually tells the strangers in his train compartment how he essentially tries to purchase Conchita off her cash-strapped mother, and how he beats and humiliates the girl after he’s been sexually frustrated. Rather than being scandalized by the shameful confession, everyone takes his side, nods understandingly and comforts the respectable victim. Obscure Object is Buñuel’s attack on what he sees as the capitalist system of romance: men, the class with the capital, protect and provide for women, and in return they receive love and sex. This arrangement, based on inequality, can never satisfy either sex: men will remain emotionally frustrated because women only give in to them out of hardship, and the disenfranchised women use the only weapon at their disposal—their erotic power—to revenge themselves upon men. Just as the characters in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie never get to eat, Mathieu never gets to… you know.

As for why two women play Conchita, it’s one of those deliberate Surrealist accidents that suggest interpretations that remain obscure. Do Bouquet and Molina represent two sides of the same woman, a divided personality, female duplicity? I lean to the reading that there are two women because Mathieu, the bourgeois man, can’t understand the “object” of his own desire; he no more notices that his love changes before his very eyes than he sees that the society around him is crumbling into anarchy.

According to co-writer and longtime Buñuel collaborator , the idea to cast two women in the role of Conchita occurred in an early draft of the script, but was discarded. When production began on the movie Buñuel was unhappy with the woman chosen to play Conchita (Last Tango in Paris’ Maria Schneider) and came close to abandoning the project before resurrecting the idea of using dual actresses in the role.

The Criterion Collection lost the rights to Studio Canal’s Buñuel collection, and therefore the 2013 Blu-ray of That Obscure Object of Desire was released by Lions Gate (buy). It has different special features than the Criterion DVD, including interviews with both Bouquet and Molina.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Buñuel creates a vision of a world as logical as a theorem, as mysterious as a dream, and as funny as a vaudeville gag.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: 1 (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Pater Sparrow

FEATURING: Zoltán Mucsi, László Sinkó, Vica Kerekes, Pál Mácsai

PLOT: When all the rare books in a bookstore are mysteriously replaced by an anonymous book titled “1,” the “Reality Defense Council” steps in to investigate.

Still from 1 (2009)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: 1 aggressively aligns itself with the irrational by making a fascistic institution dedicated to the defense of reality into its chief villain. It’s a professionally made little sleeper of a movie with some outrageously bold and inventive ideas; it would fit comfortably alongside other candidates on the List. Better visibility would help its case.

COMMENTS: 1 is a partial adaptation of the short story “One Human Minute” by the Polish science fiction author Stanislaw Lem (who also wrote the novel on which Solaris was based). The story was a fictional review of a fictional book that purported to describe, in voluminous statistical tables, all of human activity that occurs on Earth during one minute’s time (including, for example, the suicide totals, subdivided into the number of hangings, gunshots, and so forth, reports on gallons of blood spilled and sperm ejaculated, etc.). The original story may seem like an insanely ambitious project, but, although 1 quotes extensively from “One Human Minute” and illustrates Lem’s sardonic prose with extensive stock footage montages, the film takes the idea merely as its launching pad. 1, the movie, posits that “1,” the book described by Lem, has been published by some godlike force, and that it has a mystical power to drive men mad. The book appears in a rare bookstore one day, replacing every other volume on the shelf. The store is locked down by a detective and the four people who were present during the event—the wealthy owner, the beautiful clerk, a mute janitor, and an elderly customer who is a “citizen of the Vatican”—are sequestered for questioning. Eventually a copy of “1” finds its way into the streets and is uploaded to the Internet. Those who read the book riot. Meanwhile, the quartet of suspects is whisked away to a government installation/dolphin habitat run by the Reality Defense Institute, where they are drugged and interrogated. Then pears start showing up everywhere. Then things get a little weird. 1 covers a lot of ground: formally, it’s a dark and dystopian parody of a police procedural with surrealist touches, and the original novella’s warning about humanity being swallowed up by statistics is still there. But more than anything 1 seems to be about the notion that reality is subjective, taking the idea that we can do whatever we can imagine to literal extremes. To me, that’s not that inspiring or original of a philosophical concept; then again, so few movies have any ideas at all that it hardly seems fair to criticize 1 for having a weak one. What really matters isn’t the novelty of the idea but of the execution, and here 1 is a winner: it’s constantly fresh, surprising and amusing. It’s clever to see reality grilling imagination in an interrogation room. It’s bizarre when a government agent tears down a poster of a pear, but doesn’t notice that by doing so he has just revealed a real pear hidden in a recess of the wall. The entire notion of a government-sponsored “Reality Defense Institute” dedicated to investigating and prosecuting offenses against reality is a beautiful mockery. 1 is baffling, but its surprises are almost always rewarding. It’s 1, weird movie.

Perhaps ironically, 1 is not available on DVD (or any other format) in Region 1. There is a Spanish Region 2 DVD out there somewhere. According to director Sparrow, “…the main production house, Honeymood Films, for reasons unfamiliar to me stayed aloof from the dvd release… since the distributional rights belong to them, the only thing that I can do is to accept the fact that my first feature will not be officially released on dvd.” This being the digital age, 1 can still be seen by those with rudimentary Google skills (with the director’s blessing). Sparrow has moved on and is currently working on a second feature, Heartsnatcher, an adaptation of a Boris Vian novel.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Reminiscent of the works of Peter Greenaway (especially 1980’s The Falls) in its vast referential breadth, its mannered blurring of fact and fiction, and the beauty of its tableau-like images, this fever dream of a film conjures up the ineffable presence of God alongside the whiff of dog turd, and defies viewers to determine for themselves both what’s what and what it’s all about.”–Anton Bitel, Eye for Film (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “tranqilo.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)