DAMON ZEX: INTELLECTUAL PROVOCATEUR‏

“Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema” is a column published on Thursdays covering truly independent cinema: the stuff that’s so far under the public radar it may as well be underground.  The folks making these films may be starving artists today, but they may be recognized as geniuses tomorrow.  We hope to look like geniuses ourselves by being the first to cover them.

While there might still be quality, dramatic television, there is little doubt the medium has lost it’s imaginative powers and any penchant for innovative, experimental, provocative, quirky aesthetics. Ernie Kovacs and Andy Kauffman are long dead. In addition to Kauffman, the 80’s did see Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Bakshi’s “New Adventures of Mighty Mouse”, but they have been relegated to distant memories. Then, in the 1990’s came Damon Zex; the underground cult icon from Columbus, Ohio’s short-lived public access television.

One writer speculated that Charlie Chaplin was nearly the sole silent super star to have survived sound because he alone understood it was a different art form. There is a reason that Chaplin, Keaton, Harry Langdon, Charlie Bowers, Theda Bara, etc. were inspirational fodder to later surrealist luminaries such as Samuel Beckett and Andre Breton. Those provocateurs understood and connected with elements from the silent art form which had it’s origins in vaudeville and can be seen in today’s performance artists such as Diamanda Galas and Damon Zex.

Much in early film, by today’s standard, was experimental because the rules had not yet been set as to what constituted ‘film’ and what did not. Luis Buñuel once said, “Moving pictures merely repeat what we have been told for centuries by novels and plays. Thus, a marvelous instrument for the expression of poetry and dreams (the subconscious world) is reduced to the role of simple REPEATER of stories expressed by other art forms.”

Damon Zex’s “Asana Assassin” (discussed below)

In lieu of today’s obsession for squeaky clean, hypernarrative Hollywood realism, reactions to expressionism, experiment, rough improvisation range from red flag dismissals such as “artsy” and “pretentious” to downright hostility. Audiences can numbly sit through porn fests such as Hostel or Passion of the Christ, but will react quite differently when aesthetically provoked.

Author Scott MacDonald nails it in his introduction to avant-garde film studies:

Mainstream cinema is so fundamental a part of our public and private experiences, that even when filmmakers produce and exhibit alternative cinematic forms, that dominant cinema is implied by the alternatives. If one considers what has come to be called avant-garde film from the point of view of the audience, one confronts an obvious fact. No one–or certainly, almost no one–sees avant garde films without first having seen mass-market commercial films. In fact, by the time most people see their first avant-garde film, they have already seen hundreds of films in commercial theaters, and their sense of what a movie IS has been almost indelibly imprinted in their conscious and unconscious minds by their training as children and by the continual reconfirmation of this training during adolescence and adulthood. The earliest most people come in contact with an avant-garde film of any type is probably mid to late teens (for many people the experience comes later, if at all). The result is that whatever particular manipulations of imagery, sound, and time define these first avant-garde film experiences as alternatives to the commercial cinema are recognizable only because of the conventionalized context viewers have already developed. Generally, the first response generated by an avant-garde film is, ‘This isn’t a movie,’ or the more combative, ‘ You call this a movie?’  Even the rare, responsive viewer almost inevitably finds the film–whatever its actual length in minutes–‘too long .’  By the time we see our first avant-garde film we think we know what movies are, we recognize what ‘ everyone’ agrees they should be; and we see the new cinematic failures-to-conform as presumptuous refusals to use the cinematic space (theater, VCR, viewing room) ‘correctly.’ If we look carefully at this response, however, we recognize that the obvious anger and frustration are a function of the fact that those films confront us with the necessity of redefining an experience we were sure we understood. We may feel we KNOW that these avant-garde films are not movies, but what are they? We see them in a theater; they’re projected by movie projectors,just as conventional movies are… we can see that they ARE movies, even if we KNOW they’re not. The experience provides us with the opportunity to come to a clearer, more complete understanding of what the cinematic experience actually can be, and what–for all the pleasure and inspiration it may give us–the conventional movie experience is NOT.

Elitism in artistic taste has become a dirty word and frequently one hears the
Continue reading DAMON ZEX: INTELLECTUAL PROVOCATEUR‏

18. NAKED LUNCH (1991)

“It’s impossible to make a movie out of ‘Naked Lunch.’ A literal translation just wouldn’t work. It would cost $400 million to make and would be banned in every country of the world.” –David Cronenberg

Must SeeWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: David Cronenberg

FEATURING:  Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Julian Sands

PLOT:  Bill Lee is a writer/exterminator in New York City whose wife begins mainlining the bug powder he uses to kill roaches, and convinces him to try it as well.  He becomes addicted to the powder, and one night shoots his wife dead while playing “William Tell.”  Lee goes on the lam and lands in Interzone, an exotic free zone reminiscent of Tangier or Casablanca (but which may exist only in his mind), where he begins taking ever more powerful drugs and typing out “reports” partially dictated to him by his living, insectoid typewriter.

Naked Lunch (1991) still

BACKGROUND:

  • William S. Burroughs’s original novel Naked Lunch was selected as one of the 100 best English language novels written after 1923 by Time magazine.
  • The novel was held not to be obscene by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 1966.  This was the final obscenity prosecution of a literary work in the United States; there would be no subsequent censorship of the written word (standing alone).
  • Several directors had considered filming the novel before David Cronenberg got the project.  Avant-garde director Anthony Balch wanted to adapt it as a musical (with Burroughs’s blessing), and actually got as far as storyboarding the project and getting a commitment from Mick Jagger (who later backed out) to star.  Among others briefly interested in adapting the novel in some form were Terry Southern, John Huston, Frank Zappa, and Terry Gilliam.
  • Because the novel was essentially a plotless series of hallucinatory vignettes (what Burroughs called “routines’), David Cronenberg chose to make the movie a thinly veiled tale about Burroughs’s writing of the novel, incorporating only a few of the actual characters and incidents from the book.  Actors in the film portray real-life writers and Burroughs associates Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Paul and Jane Bowles.
  • The episode in the film where Lee accidentally shoots his wife while performing the “William Tell routine” is taken from Burroughs real life: he actually shot his common law wife while performing a similar trick in a Mexican bar.  Burroughs felt tremendous guilt through his life for the accident and has said “I would have never become a writer but for Joan’s death.”
  • Naked Lunch won seven awards at the Genie Awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars), including Best Movie and Best Director.
  • Producer Jeremy Thomas has somewhat specialized in bringing weird and unusual fare to the largest possible audience, producing not only Naked Lunch but also Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) and Tideland (2005).
  • 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, Barton Fink.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Clark Nova, Lee’s territorial, talking typewriter, who alternately guides and torments the writer.  He’s a beetle who has somehow evolved a QWERTY keyboard as an organ. When he speaks, he lifts his wings to reveal a sphincter through which he dictates his directives.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  It begins with an exterminator who does his rounds wearing a three piece suit and fedora.  His philosophy is to “exterminate all rational thought.”  His wife steals his insecticide and injects it into her breast to get high, and gets him hooked on the bug power, too.  A pair of cops question him on suspicion of possessing dangerous narcotics, and leave him alone in the interrogation room with a huge talking “caseworker” bug who explains that his wife is an agent of Interzone, Incorporated, and is not even human.  And this is just the setup, before the film turns really weird.


Original trailer for Naked Lunch

COMMENTS:  Make no mistake: Naked Lunch is clearly David Cronenberg’s movie, not Continue reading 18. NAKED LUNCH (1991)

SIR TIJN PO’S TOP 10 WEIRD MOVIES

This list is part of a new feature where we ask established directors and critics to list what they feel are their top 10 “weird” movies.  There are no constraints on what the author can pick.   This list was composed by Sir Tijn Po, director of Coming Soon.

When people ask me if I believe in god, I always ask them to define the word “god” first, since without that definition my answer is meaningless; if by “god” they mean a bearded male sadist then my answer is “no”, if by “god” they mean “an abstract power larger than myself” then my answer is “yes”.

Similarly, when asked by 366weirdmovies.com to provide a list of my 10 favorite weird movies of all time, I would first like to explain my definition of “weird”, without which my list strikes me as irrelevant.

I assume that, unlike the vast majority of English-users, the founders of 366weirdmovies.com don’t see “weird” as a pejorative, otherwise they wouldn’t be spending so much time promoting “weird” films.   I, too, don’t see “weird” as a negative; to me the word describes those areas of life which don’t quite fit into the rational, or conventionally emotional, yet effect us in powerful, and often pleasant, ways.

Some attribute this phenomenon to the sub-conscious, where, if you dig deep enough, all is supposedly explainable, etc.  Fair enough.  But I don’t feel the need to dig that deep.  I think our rational faculties are only one portion of our governing structure and there is another, often contradictory, portion which simply enjoys, and oftentimes even craves, the irrational.  No explanation needed.   No need to dig into the subconscious to make it rational. We simply have it, even though we can’t explain it.  Just like non-reproductive fetishes, etc.   They make no sense, but they’re there.

Thus, to me “weird” movies, or “weird” anything for anything for that matter, are those which describe, or stimulate, the irrational within us.

So my 10 favorite “weird” films of all time (which aren’t necessarily my 10 favorite films of all time, since my rational favorites are not included here) are:

  1. Sir Tijn Po’s COMING SOON (the portions that I didn’t write, and still keep me up at night.)
  2. Jan Svankmajer‘s CONSPIRATORS OF PLEASURE.
  3. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s THEOREMA.
  4. Walon Green’s THE SECRET LIFE OF PLANTS.
  5. Frederico Fellini’s SATYRICON.
  6. Continue reading SIR TIJN PO’S TOP 10 WEIRD MOVIES

SHORT: GREEN PORNO – FLY (2008)

Recommended(episode & 1st season series)

DIRECTED BY: Isabella Rossellini & Jody Shapiro

FEATURING: Isabella Rossellini

PLOT: A fly bides its time explaining to us how it escapes being swatted by humans, lands upside down on the ceiling, and spits into its food to dissolve it, until it sees a female and rushes to mate.

Complete short film, Green Porno: Fly.  (Requires Adobe flash player).

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  The reproductive processes of insects are strange and sometimes gruesome, but Rossellini describes them in deadpan fashion with a sly and detached wit that accentuates their alien-ness even further.

COMMENTS:  The first “Green Porno” series of eight short films ran as bumpers on the Sundance Channel in 2008.  Each approximately two minute film describes the morphology and exotic mating habits of a different bug—spiders, flies, earthworms, snails, bees, praying mantises, dragonflies, and fireflies.  Rossellini wrote, performed and co-directed the entire series.  Fly is one of the better episodes, although they are all similar in quality.  Although the films ostensibly have a documentary bent, the elegant, often childishly simple sets, costumes and art direction reveal that the series is inspired as much (if not more) by the theater as the classroom.  Rossellini’s performances can be subtly hilarious: note the big smile she flashes while copulating, and the abruptly disconcerting way she ends this episode with the image of her severed head accompanied by her proud fatherly proclamation, “Our babies grow up in cadavers.  They are called—maggots!”   She also seems to recognize that seeing a former sex symbol turned grandmotherly matron of the arts gleefully humping a model fly is going to look a little weird, and takes to the task with relish.  Although the films are meticulously clinical and entomological, depictions of insect beheadings, penetrations and S&M rituals among snails can be unnerving.

The entire series can be viewed on The Sundance Channel website.  A second season, covering sea creatures like the barnacle, starfish and limpet is airing currently on the channel and can also be viewed at the website.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…defying all existing categories previously known to any species Rossellini has embarked on an affectionate, raw when not surreal, often tongue in cheek and intermittently lusty exploration of creature erotic appetites.”–Prairie Miller, Newsblaze

WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 4/16/09

Every Friday, we take a look at what’s weird in theaters, on hot-off-the-presses DVDs, and on more distant horizons…

Trailers of new release movies are generally available on the official site links.

FILM FESTIVALS:

The San Francisco International Film Festival opens April 23 and runs through May 7.  Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now) will be honored and do an in-person Q&A session on May 1.  Intriguing revivals include Fellini’s (non-weird) Nights of Cabiria (1957) on May 3rd, Sergio Leone’s (non-weird) Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) on May 3rd, and the silent stop motion dinosaur adventure film The Lost World (1925), with a new score composed and performed by Dengue Fever on May 5th.  New films of potential weird appeal include:

  • Everything Strange and New, a minimalist story of suburban angst with a twist (Apr. 26, 28 & May 2)
  • Grace, the tale of a baby who is born undead (May 1 &4)
  • Handle with Care, a compilation of seven short visually experimental pieces (Apr. 26, May 1)
  • Korean director Pil-sung Yim’s dark take on the Hansel & Gretel fairy tale (Apr,. 24, 27 & 30)
  • The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle, an absurdist comedy about janitors undergoing male pregnancy (May 2 & 6)
  • Parting Shots, another collection of experimental shorts (Apr. 25 & 28)
  • Rembrandt’s J’accuse, an essay/documentary on the Rembrandt painting by weird director and artist Peter Greenaway (Apr. 26, 27 & 28)
  • The Tiger’s Tail, a doppelgänger fable set in modern Ireland (Apr 24 & 26)
  • Wild Field, a Russian film about a doctor relocated to rural Kazakhstan, described as coming out of the “tradition of dark, existential Russian tragicomedy” (Apr. 25 & 28).

NEW ON DVD:

The Spirit (2008):  Frank Miller’s followup to the cult hit Sin City (2005), with Samuel L. Jackson, is another visually inventive comic book adaptation, but this one was critically panned as incoherent (not necessarily an indictment, if you’re into weird).  Buy from Amazon

NEW ON BLU-RAY:

The Thirteenth Floor (1999):  A scientist must enter a computer-simulation of 1930s Los Angeles to discover the truth about a murder in this recursive virtual reality thriller that was overshadowed by The Matrix on release .  Buy from Amazon

What are you looking forward to? If you have any weird movie leads that I have overlooked, feel free to leave them in the COMMENTS section.

FRINGE CINEMA: “GOD IS AN UNDERACHIEVER”: EVOKING GUERNICA

“Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema” is an irregularly published column covering truly independent cinema: the stuff that’s so far under the public radar it may as well be underground.  The folks making these films may be starving artists today, but they may be recognized as geniuses tomorrow.  We hope to look like geniuses ourselves by being the first to cover them.

DJ Monkey is an L.A. band, headed by Joey Alkes and Mick McMains, on the Squid Music label.  The band’s first album from 2004 was “Another Evolution” which produced the web hit music video/short film “U-Boat” and garnered a plethora of excellent reviews.

With DJ Monkey’s second album, “3rd World War,” Joey Alkes turned to Dennis Schraub to create a music video/short film for the band’s song “God is an Underachiever.”  Schraub and Alkes created two edits of the short film and choosing between them would be as unwelcome a task as choosing between Coltrane’s two edits of “Ascension”.  The comparison is apt.  “God is an Underachiever” is as difficult, moving and inspiring in it’s right as the much written about late Coltrane.
Schraub and Alkes refer to the film as being inspired by “Guernica”.  The second edit of the film was the one officially released, as the first was deemed too disturbing.  It is this second edit that is available on the Squid Music website and youtube.

God Is an Underachiever (second edit).  WARNING: Contains strong images of man’s inhumanity to man.

“Warning: This video was specifically made to create controversy! Not controversy for controversy sake, nor for promotional shock value, but as a plea for all of us to take responsibility, as representatives of our maker, for the mess we’ve all made of this planet! GOD IS AN UNDERACHIEVER is meant to spark dialogue and not point a finger!! Pay close attention to the line in the 1st chorus that says, “but I am still a believer.”–Squid Music

With the short film, “God is an Underachiever” appropriately becomes a 21st century multi-media collage work, as the film is as vital and as potent as the song itself.

Excerpts from the lyrics and a warning accompanying the video are poignant clues to the nature of the film.

“God is an underachiever, I guess he has to be.  God is an underachiever, but I’m still a believer.” 

“Seems like we no longer can hear very well… the mutation of the spirit.  Joan of Arc was burned at the stake… and some people thought Darwin a fool… God took him to a better place where the water had a better taste… when I die, it should be a special day….”

In his third symphony, “Kaddish” (written as an angry response to the murder of friend Continue reading FRINGE CINEMA: “GOD IS AN UNDERACHIEVER”: EVOKING GUERNICA

CAPSULE: ELEVATOR MOVIE (2004)

NOTE: Elevator Movie has been promoted to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Commenting is closed on this review, which is left here for archival purposes. Please visit Elevator Movie‘s Certified Weird entry to comment on this film.

DIRECTED BY:  Zeb Haradon

FEATURING:  Zeb Haradon, Robin Ballard

PLOT:  A socially maladjusted college student and a reformed slut turned Jesus freak are elevator_movie

trapped in an elevator together–impossibly, for weeks on end.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Quite possibly, Elevator Movie will make the overall list of 366 movies; I reserve the right to revisit it in the future.  By mixing Sartre’s “No Exit” with an ultra-minimalist riff on Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, garnished with large dollops of sexual perversity, writer/director/star Zeb Haradon has created one of the weirder underground movies of recent years.  Unfortunately, in a demanding two character piece that requires top-notch, nuanced dramatic performances to succeed, Haradon’s acting talent isn’t up to the level of his imagination and screenwriting ability.  The resulting film looks like an “A-” film school final project: it tantalizingly promises more than it’s capable of delivering. 

COMMENTS:  Zeb Haradon is definitely a writer to keep an eye on.  The script of Elevator Movie, though not perfect (it misses a few precious opportunities to ratchet the tension and drama up to stratospheric levels), is far and away the movie’s greatest asset.  Haradon takes a very threadbare set of motifs (most notably, infantile Freudian sexuality) and pushes them as far as he can.  This two-character, one setting drama could have been intolerably boring for the first few reels as it builds to its crashingly surreal climax, but Haradon manages to keep us interested by slowly revealing new facets of the characters and keeping up a reasonable tension as Jim and Lana struggle to reconcile their need for intimacy with their complete incompatibility and diametrically opposed agendas.  This could have been a masterpiece, had the actors been able to carry off the monumental task the script sets up for them.  Robin Ballard is passable in the easier role of Lana, but Haradon is almost unforgivably subdued as Jim.  Jim is passive, so some of the wimpiness of the characterization is intentional, but when he needs to project a menacing, seething passion subdued under a calm exterior, he can’t pull it off.  Therefore, at times the inherent dramatic conflict tails off into a bland “OK, OK”, just as Jim’s voice does when Lana once again rejects his advances. 

The images in Elevator Movie, largely scatological and sexual but also involving some brief animal cruelty, are not for the meek.  That said, some of these shocking images, and the surprising but perfect ending, can resonate a horrid fascination for a long time afterwards.  That’s what makes Elevator Movie come so achingly near to being a great weird movie.  Even with qualifications, it’s definitely worth a look for the Eraserhead set.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As a champion of ‘Eraserhead’, ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’, ‘Naked Lunch’, and ‘Back Against the Wall’, all fine films that downright bask in their toxicity to the homogenized masses, I found Haradon’s film to be unique and fascinating and a most worthy addition to the midnight movie circuit. Just don’t ask me to spend any longer in Haradon’s mind than I have to in any one sitting. It’s very likely I’d never make it out!”–Daniel Wible, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

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