Tag Archives: 1979

CAPSULE: THE GRASS LABYRINTH (1979)

Kusa-meikyû

DIRECTED BY: Shuji Terayama

FEATURING: Hiroshi Mikami, Takeshi Wakamatsu, Keiko Niitaka

PLOT: A youth embarks on a quest through his unconscious to uncover a tune that his mother used to sing for him as a child.

Still from The Grass Labyrinth (1979)

COMMENTS: Shuji Terayama, emperor of Japan’s post-war avant-garde scene, made a name for himself mainly through experimental plays and films such as Death in the Country, The Fruits of Passion (starring ), and the controversial Emperor Tomato Ketchup. Grass Labyrinth is a 40 minute work that extravagantly exhibits the author’s tendencies and style while also assuming a relatively restrained approach.

The premise of an investigation into the labyrinth of memory allows for an exercise in oneiric and experimental filmmaking free from the solidity of conventional narrative. Images float in and out of the screen in a liquid stream of consciousness, like half-remembered memories (the other half filled by reconstructions, dreams and hallucinations) in a state of hypnagogia. Recurring motifs and ideas form a subliminal thread that never assumes the form of a clear and rational plot: mother figure, appearing in an Oedipal context (already suggested by the film’s premise); open fields; the ocean; and, of course, the melody of the song that our protagonist so desperately seeks, the picture’s main leitmotif.

The search for a lost childhood item (with all its psychological implications) provides the film’s central point of focus, the axis around which all the apparitions dance. The immersion in the confusing (and occasionally terrifying) sea of childhood memories summons a cast of disquieting sights and sounds, specters of all sorts that haunt the boy’s psychic depths. The mother, who at times seems to be conflated with the song itself, is the most prominent vision, but we can’t ignore the contribution of the unnamed woman who inspires contradictory attitudes of attraction and repulsion in the main character, or a troupe of demonic figures that burst into the film in a loud and ritualistic spectacle typical of Terayama’s style.

Grass Labyrinth succeeds in replicating the aura of a striking but badly remembered dream, or a trip down unconscious lane. Like other works by Terayama, it subverts the conventional trappings of cinema in order to provide an experience that couldn’t be communicated otherwise. Standing in between the author’s more experimental short-films and his (relatively) more accessible full-length outings, it works well as an introduction to the overlooked auteur.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a surreal trip of a short film…. It doesn’t take long for Akira’s journey to fall down a rabbit hole of weirdness and the movie quite literally ends in a madhouse.”–Trevor Wells, Geeks

35*. BUFFET FROID (1979)

AKA Cold Cuts

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“The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.”–André Breton

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bertrand Blier

FEATURING: , Bernard Blier, Jean Carmet, ,

PLOT: Soon after telling a man in the Paris subway about his fantasies of committing murder, Alphonse discovers the man dying with Alphonse’s own switchblade in his chest. Rushing home, he teams up with a police inspector and a hapless criminal who confesses to killing Alphonse’s wife. The trio goes out into the world, confronting both a variety of people who wish to kill them or to be killed by them.

Still from Buffet Froid (1979)

BACKGROUND:

  • Writer-director Bertrand Blier won the César (France’s Oscar) for Best Writing for Buffet Froid. The film was also nominated in the cinematography, editing, and production design categories.
  • Buffet Froid feels very ian, even more so since Blier cast two actresses who had previously worked on Luis Buñuel films: Geneviève Page and Carole Bouquet.
  • Bernard Blier (Inspector Morvandieu) is the director’s father. It was his third appearance in one of his son’s films.
  • The role of the man harassed by Alphonse in the subway is played by an uncredited Michel Serrault, who is probably best known as Albin in the original La cage aux folles.
  • The opening scene is set in the Metro station at La Défense, which now sits directly underneath the monumental La Grande Arche building in the Parisian suburbs.
  • The film was not released in the United States until 1987. American critics were fiercely negative.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It’s tempting to select the terrific jump cut when the leading trio is informed that they need to relax, and suddenly find themselves convalescing in front of a rustic cottage in the woods. But for a singular image, there’s great spectacle in the moment when a policeman responds to an emergency call only to find that he himself is the victim. His wide-eyed horror at being ushered into his deathbed while a string quintet assembles to serenade him into the great beyond is unforgettably hilarious.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: The widow moves in; assassin gets a head start in the water

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Buffet Froid is epic in its underplaying. Forget consequences; it posits a world where crime doesn’t pay because it doesn’t matter. The body count wouldn’t be out of place in a Hollywood thriller, but a strange combination of fear of dying and reluctance to be caught underlies everything. It’s telling that Alphonse doesn’t lose his cool when he finds his own knife sticking out of a dying man, or even when he discovers his wife’s murder (and murderer). No, it’s only when a man tells him bluntly, “Accept your responsibilities and I’ll be on my way” that he stops dead in his tracks. Buffet Froid depicts a world gone mad, but in the most controlled way possible.

Trailer for Buffet Froid

COMMENTS: Buffet Froid lays out its premise almost immediately. Continue reading 35*. BUFFET FROID (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)