Tag Archives: 1979

DOUBLE CAPSULE: AM I NORMAL?: A FILM ABOUT MALE PUBERTY (1979) / FLOWERS AND BOTTOMS (2016)

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Talking frankly about sex (without becoming lewd or lascivious) is among the most difficult tasks we as a society face, and arguably our failure to do so in a mature and productive manner is responsible for an unconscionable percentage of the world’s problems. And yet we continue to just not do it. Embarrassment and cultural taboos are the chief reasons, but a significant (if rarely discussed) cause has to be that we’re so bad at it. Not for nothing is there an award given annually for the worst description of sex in literature. 

Even in this rarefied air, the awkwardness and supreme un-coolness of the sex ed film is beyond calculation. And one such representative of this genre that has garnered cult recognition is a product of the Boston Family Planning Project that presumably ended up in schools across America at the start of the 80s and accomplished the goal of making sex an even less desirable topic of conversation. “Am I Normal?” lingers in the imagination four decades later because it is so strangely goofy at presenting the subject of sexuality in the adolescent male. We’re already primed to laugh at that which unsettles or disturbs us, like a boggart in the cupboard, so directors Debra Franco and David Shepard make the understandable decision to leaven the awkward nature of the topic with humor. Unfortunately, the nature of the silliness is so over-the-top that it rarely works as humor and barely works as education.

To its credit, the film recognizes its challenges, especially when it comes to teenagers. Having been caught with an untimely physical reaction to an invitation from Susie (Jennifer Adelson) to go to the movies, our protagonist Jimmy (Joel Doolin) and his wrestling champion-sized belt buckle wander around town looking for sex advice like the bird in “Are You My Mother?” He asks anyone and everyone for information about these strange new physical and emotional sensations, and his advisors are a motley crew, including his best pal who sits in the school locker room reading a book entitled Great Moments in Sex, a zookeeper who admits to seeing all kinds of penises in his job (“Animal penises!” he quickly clarifies), and his own father, who compares the private parts of men and women to a baseball bat and a catcher’s mitt. (No points for guessing which is which.)  

The information imparted is benign and actually kind of helpful. (Worth noting that Jimmy gets something closer to straight answers when he turns to authority figures who dispense knowledge, such as a librarian or the school nurse. Also interesting that they’re both women.) But the delivery of each nugget carries with it the blunt Continue reading DOUBLE CAPSULE: AM I NORMAL?: A FILM ABOUT MALE PUBERTY (1979) / FLOWERS AND BOTTOMS (2016)

CAPSULE: HARPYA (1979) / APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BOBBY YEAH (2011)

Weirdest!(both films)

“You can do anything in animation” is a truism, a promise of unlimited potential that is frequently untapped beyond a surface-level dive into the unusual. Enough people stumble at “the animals can talk?” issue to make it unfair to expect more. However, it is also true that those filmmakers who are willing to go deeper into the realm of the possible do so with gusto. And so we arrive at a pair of short films that readily embrace the horror that ensues from making the wrong choice.

Raoul Servais’ legend in animation circles is due in large part to 1979’s Harpya. (The film won the Palme d’Or for short films at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.) The tale of a man who saves the life of a horrible-beautiful creature, only for it to methodically destroy his life, is a very simple demonstration of cause and effect.

When he intervenes to stop what looks like a cold-blooded murder, the action seems noble and moral. His decency continues when comes home with the near-victim, a giant, feathered, bare-breasted creature, but his good intentions immediately backfire. The house guest eats everything, denying the man even a morsel, and when he attempts to leave, the monster eats his legs for good measure. Even when he manages to distract the beast and escape the house, she pursues him and takes his food once more, leading him to attempt to murder her himself. It’s like a horror version of One Froggy Evening.

Servais’ technique is what lifts the movie into the rare air of our consideration. Using a method of his own invention, he shot live-action footage and projected animated settings onto the film using clear sheets. The result is something like a daguerreotype given life.

There’s a troubling undercurrent of misogyny in the film, however. In fairness to Servais, this is not explicit, but inherent in the mythological character he is invoking. (For his own part, Servais has described Harpya as a parody of a vampire tale.) If anything, it presents the danger of reading too deeply into a story; the harpy functions quite sufficiently as a movie monster, but it’s all too easy to infer a manifesto. In my research, I found at least one review that unironically celebrated the film as an attack on the shrewishness of women, which is pretty awful but speaks to the power of the piece.

Robert Morgan’s Bobby Yeah is less likely to garner sociological blowback, but only because it’s so much more obviously grotesque. Where Servais’ harpy was a lone example of a disgusting supernatural, everything in Bobby Yeah is bloody or slimy or both. That includes our ostensible protagonist, a bunny-eared, troll-faced creature who makes trouble for himself by literally pushing other people’s buttons.

The little rabbit guy is a classic protagonist who keeps stumbling from one terrible situation into another. Of course, he’s hideous, but he earns a tiny amount of sympathy by being the least hideous thing in the film. At every turn, he confronts a new bruised and twisted creature, often displaying unmistakably phallic characteristics and ready to attack the bunny guy for his most recent misdeed. (The film is replete with symbolism, particularly sexual, but it has significant impact even before you start to delve.) It’s an unrelentingly anxious 23 minutes, replete with violence, body horror, and building dread.

The eyes are often the giveaway in CGI animation, the evidence of unreality that disrupts the sense of reality. In Morgan’s production, the eyes have the opposite effect: disturbingly realistic eyes that peer out of misshapen doll faces, wall ornaments that resemble pizzas, and koosh-ball-headed serpents that stare out with unnerving authenticity. While the production design may seem to earn the title of “grossest film of all time,” it should be noted that the physical revulsion is easily matched by the psychic discomfort that lingers. Bobby Yeah isn’t just gross; it’s gross in very powerful ways.

As noted, you can do anything in animation, but what’s interesting is when a filmmaker really wants to do anything. Servais and Morgan both tap into primal fears that by turns intrigue and appall. Harpya packs a lot of horror and surrealism into its eight minutes, but it’s ultimately too slight to earn a place in the Apocrypha. Bobby Yeah, however, has the advantages of being longer and more viscerally unsettling. It’s a genuinely transcendent and transgressive work, and it’s worthy of future consideration as a candidate. Both movies, though, have a lengthy half-life in the brain, showing how a burst of animation can easily take up residence in your scared, scarred soul.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘…a fantastic surreal film…” – Dr. Grob’s Animation Review on “Harpya”

“…the stuff of surreal nightmares. It just goes to show that there are fertile imaginations out there creating weird and wonderful worlds for us to explore.” – Jude Felton, The Lair of Filth on “Bobby Yeah”

(“Harpya” was nominated for review by Absanktie and “Bobby Yeah” was nominated by Russ. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: RADIO ON (1979)

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DIRECTED BY: Christopher Petit

FEATURING: David Beames, Lisa Kreuzer

PLOT: A disc jockey drives across the UK when he learns about his brother’s death.

Still from Radio On (1979)

COMMENTS: Radio On is well aware that its soundtrack is its strongest (or, at least, its most marketable) component. The movie begins with the sound of a radio dial quickly migrating through static and brief news snippets to fasten onto singing “Heroes” (the rare extended version where the crooner sings the lyrics in both English and German). The main cast are quickly credited, and then we launch into the soundtrack credits:  Bowie. Kraftwerk. King Crimson’s Robert Fripp. Ian Dury. A bunch of late punk/early new wave acts now forgotten. Devo. (Though not credited, a young Sting will also cameo, as a guitar-playing gas station pump jockey who sings Eddie Cochran’s “Three Steps to Heaven.”) Cinematic staple “Heroes” continues to drone as the black and white camera pans through a cluttered apartment to eventually light upon a body in a bathtub.

Unfortunately, the zeitgeist tunes and superior camerawork (by associate Martin Schäfer, one of several connections to the German director found in Radio On) are the movie’s only real draws. Made just as Thatcherism was taking hold in the U.K., Radio On is as dour and torpid as the mindset of liberal intellectuals of the period. That body in the bathtub belongs to our DJ protagonist Robert’s dead brother, who, after 25 or so minutes of dilly-dallying, staring off into space, and getting a haircut in what seems like real time, sets him off on a journey to find out what happened. The camera focuses on the ugliest examples of modern British architecture it can find—factories, tenement skyscrapers, freeway on-ramps—so that when we finally see the flat and bleak English landscape outside his car window, it looks pastoral by comparison. Newscasts blather on about crime and obscenity raids, until our expressionless antihero turns on some Kraftwerk in boredom. It’s all very esque, stylishly alienated and dispassionate. Once the journey gets afoot, Petit livens up the scenario (not a difficult task) with a few chance encounters: a Scottish army deserter, Sting, and a plot detour with a German woman (Wenders’ ex-wife Kreuzer) fruitlessly searching for the daughter her ex-husband has taken to England. Robert’s car deteriorates throughout the journey, until it ends up stalled out at a quarry by a beach. We never learn exactly what happened to the brother.

I’m sure Radio On accurately captures the mood of anomie among leftists in 1979 England. As a time capsule, it has some value beyond the soundtrack and cinematography. But the aggressively disenchanted pallor makes it a hard sell for people who weren’t there. Despite the Bowie tunes, most of the movie informed by long, ambiguous-but-sad silences.

Radio On was a surprise late 2021 release from Vinegar Syndrome (via partner label Fun City). The movie has a small but loyal British following, and among the surprising number of extras on the disc (including a Kier-La Janisse commentary track and multiple interviews with director Petit) is “Radio On (Remix),” a 24-minute experimental film composed of altered Radio On footage with a schizophrenic audio mix and lines of poetry appearing in subtitles. I’m personally much fonder of this abstract, dreamlike approach to the material, but it’s difficult to say how it would work as a standalone piece for someone with no knowledge of the feature.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an enigmatic and offbeat walk on the wild side.”–Rob Aldam, Backseat Mafia (Blu-ray)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ARREBATO [RAPTURE] (1979)

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DIRECTED BY: Iván Zulueta

FEATURING: , Will More, Cecilia Roth

PLOT: A horror director whose work and relationships are in decline due to his heroin addiction receives a package from an eccentric acquaintance containing a mysterious short film.

Still from Arrebato (Rapture) (1979)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The Spaniards in our audience would never forgive us if we simply disregarded this one.

COMMENTS: As we learn from Mike White’s informative commentary track to Arrebato, director Iván Zulueta was an experimental filmmaker (with one prior feature to his name)—and, at the time he made this movie, a functional heroin addict. This background may explain why the two main characters in Zuleta’s sophomore feature are a filmmaker who is working on his sophomore feature, but seeing his work sabotaged by his growing drug problem, and a younger experimental filmmaker who appears to seek advice from the established director, but actually has more to teach than his mentor. In Arrebato the “raptures” of filmmaking and of opiates become entwined to the point where it’s impossible to decide which serves a metaphor for the other. An oblique version of the Christian sense of “rapture”—being snatched from earthly existence and spirited away to paradise—may also be at play, further complicating matters.

The film’s structure is unusual. It begins with Pedro sending a mysterious audiotape and film strip to José; the tape will supply a running narration throughout the film that explains much of the backstory. Listening to the tape induces two flashbacks describing the characters’ previous encounters. We meet Pedro in the flesh in these flashbacks, and his portrayal by Will More is… curious. On tape, his voice affects an unnaturally raspy delivery; in person, it’s high-pitched, like a kid’s. We first meet him in his child-man persona, throwing a childish fit when an experiment in filming a tree is briefly interrupted. He then hangs around in the background silently, with a bug-eyed stare, or shows up holding a creepy doll. When he takes cocaine, however, the drug paradoxically slows him down and turns him into a coherent, if heavy-lidded, adult; his hairstyle even changes from an unkempt bushy mop to a slicked back greaser ‘do. Later, the script will give Pedro the chance to act in a parody of a motorcycle fetish film, and to languish as a strung-out junkie (in withdrawal not from heroin, but from the ecstasy of film). More’s crazy performance is sort of like a Spanish operating under a heavy dose of barbiturates. Some will find it adds pleasantly to the weirdness; I thought it was distractingly goofy.

It’s not always clear, without paying attention to contextual clues (i.e. the progression of José’s addiction), what time period we’re in; still, the movie’s reputation as “confusing” is greatly overblown. The narrative, in fact, is simple to follow; the real confusion is thematic. This is one of those movies that has too many ideas, and might have done better to focus on just one or two. To the central idea of a merger between drug and filmic rapture states, we have a series of inserts of Pedro’s experimental short films (mostly in the herky-jerky time-lapse style); philosophical excursions revolving around notions of rhythm and pause; coded homoeroticism (Pedro and José lounging together in bed); inconsistent references to vampirism; Pedro’s oscillations between childhood and adulthood; a female character voiced by a pre-fame Pedro Almódovar; the suggestion of Pedro and José  as a split personality; a Betty Boop-themed seduction; and all of the various senses of “rapture” constantly crowding each other out. These colliding ideas and gambits harmonize inconsistently: the exploration of José and Ana’s disintegrating relationship works well as a subplot, but some bits, like Pedro’s detour into depravity through a punk rock-scored rough-trade threesome in an elevator, don’t make much sense. It almost goes without saying that there’s no rational explanation for the ending. Arrebato is a mostly delightful, sometimes frustrating mess, best seen as Zulueta’s onscreen self-psychoanalysis, performed in a  post-Franco atmosphere of loosened censorship that encouraged ecstatic excess. Any meaning the tale suggests disappears into the spaces between frames.

Arrebato was beloved by many Spaniards (and championed by Almódovar), but was unavailable outside of Spain for many years— and rarely screened even there. That changed in 2021 with the release of a restored version of the film to U.S. theaters, followed by a DVD and Blu-ray from weird/queer distributor Altered Innocence, via their arty “Anus Films” (groan) imprint. Visually, the print is grainy rather than pristine, appropriate for a movie in which the physicality of celluloid is immanent: the shooting, editing and processing of film is central to the plot. The experimental soundtrack (by Zulueta, with a contemporary punk anthem thrown in) is exceptional. The only special feature is the aforementioned Mike White commentary track, which gives important background information assisting viewers in appreciating this odd and sometimes difficult film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Arrebato is a blighted, frightened piece of work. You may want to back away from it sometimes, but its weird, nodding, incantatory pull keeps you hanging around for another fix.”–Nick Pinkerton, 4 Columns (2021 re-release)

(This movie was nominated for review by “squater,” who raved “I’m sure any weird movie lover will recognise Arrebato as one of the weirdest movies in the world.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: DISCO GODFATHER (1979)

AKA Avenging Disco Godfather

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DIRECTED BY: J. Robert Wagoner

FEATURING:

PLOT: When a local business magnate begins selling Angel Dust, he’d better watch out for Tucker Williams: an ex-cop turned… Disco Godfather.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: This was a borderline case right up until the final minutes, its tone kept a bit off-kilter by recurring PCP-hallucination interludes. With the protagonist (unwillingly) dosed to the eyeballs for the climax, Disco Godfather grooves into avowedly bizarre territory, culminating in a strangely unsettling closing shot.

COMMENTS: “He’s alone. But how? That’s what I call balls!”

Rudy Ray Moore, as the Disco Godfather, does have balls—and a mission to “attack the Wack!” That’s right. This “wack” threatens to ruin the Godfather’s dance-loving city, and more personally, to ruin his nephew’s NBA prospects. From the opening disco dance sequence, to the later disco dance sequences, even to the climactic martial arts raid, there is a lot of disco. Quotable lines twang forth like a steady bass-line. Hair is tall, as are the shoes, with heels as elongated as the collars are wide. (Face it, you already know from the title whether you want to see this.)

After the opening number wheels out the titular hero (nearly always referred to as “Disco Godfather”, even by his former boss, police Lieutenant Whitey Hayes), it then introduces Bucky: swell guy and aspiring basketballer who has fallen in with the wrong crowd. Through Bucky, the Disco Godfather is made aware of a new scourge assailing the city’s youth. The subsequent action is fairly by-the-numbers: the Godfather visits a PCP ward full of swaying crazies; he hits up the police station to confab with his ex-partners; he’s targeted for a hit by evil business; and, of course, he jives through a “cleaning up the city” montage, laying down some righteous violence on the dope peddlers while on a hunt for information leading to Mister Big. (All of this being scored, of course, to disco.)

So, Disco Godfather has more than enough disco to live up to its name. The question becomes: does it have enough weird? This is a question it takes its sweet time answering. Bucky’s hallucination sequence on the dance floor—having puffed an Angel Dusted cigarette—is a hint of the weirdness to come. Bucky exhibits strange tics, spastic behavior (remember, disco is supposed to be all about the Smooth, with a capital “Smoo”), and strange exclamations. But we are also shown what Bucky is enduring: an odd dark-room madness with red-eyed demons, basketballers wielding six guns, and a recurrent nightmare dancer brandishing a machete. Every time we witness a PCPerience, it’s a different variation of this macabre theme, with the most elaborate and sustained trip being that suffered by the Disco Godfather himself. Fusing low-rent effects, sinister voice-over, karate chops, the boogying bopper “Shermanizing/One Way Ticket To Hell” blaring in the background, and a Wacked-out Godfather, things get way out there, man.

Part disco dance movie, part blaxsploitation, and part evangelizing, Disco Godfather is an uneven experience, but whenever the choreography stumbles, it instantly bounces back into stylish saunter.  It’s got too much funk to be sunk, too much soul to feel old, and enough velour to ensure that when Tucker comes calling, the baddies start falling.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…in the final 20 minutes or so, the story goes off the rails—in a good way, like off the rails onto another set of sturdier, glossier rails. If Rod Serling ever had a bad trip, it might look a little like the psychological hall of mirrors that Tucker finds himself in. “–Hunter Lanier, FilmThreat.com