Tag Archives: 1996

CAPSULE: MOEBIUS (1996)

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DIRECTED BY: Gustavo Mosquera

FEATURING: Guillermo Angelelli, Roberto Carnaghi, Anabella Levy, Jorge Petraglia

PLOT: A train vanishes within a vast subway system, and a topologist who happens to be a former student of the man who designed the transit line is tasked with tracking down the missing transport.

Still from Moebius (1996)

COMMENTS: For roughly a decade following a coup in 1976, the military junta that led Argentina waged a so-called “Dirty War” against suspected dissidents and opponents. The campaign amounted to state-sponsored terrorism, typified by widespread arrests without charge or trial, death camps, and even the taking of newborn infants to be raised by the families of favored families. (For what it’s worth, the Argentinian dictators had help.) The campaign of kidnapping, torture, and murder was widespread, and the suspected number of 30,000 people disappeared without a trace during the junta’s reign may be low.

So perhaps you can understand why a short science fiction story about a subway train that mysteriously goes missing might have some resonance to Argentine audiences. The hidden parts of history are an ever-present threat to those in power, so the questions the characters in Moebius confront go far beyond what happened to the train, and reach into the puzzles of why can’t we find out and who doesn’t want us to know.

That’s why the way the mystery within Moebius unfolds is surprisingly satisfying: via the turning of the wheels of bureaucracy. As the alarm of a missing train works its way up the chain, we see ever-higher levels of managers and functionaries confronted with the baffling report, with no dialogue necessary to convey their confusion. Ultimately, these same bureaucrats will be looking for a way to make the whole thing go away, because the only thing more dangerous to the powerful than an unknown is a bad known.

As the equivalent of a locked-door mystery, Moebius relies heavily on mood to do the bulk of the work. After all, our hero is a topologist, a mathematician who studies the malleability of surfaces. This turns out to be a canny choice for an investigator, given the metaphysical nature of the train’s disappearance, but it also means we shouldn’t expect a lot of riveting action.

At least as interesting as Moebius’ plot is its production: director Mosquera enlisted a crew of 45 students from the newly established Universidad del Cine in Buenos Aires. Despite their nascent skills, the film is a very polished product. In particular, antique cameras and analog editing bring an unusual sheen to the various clips of trains in motion, giving the Underground the feel of the underworld.

Ultimately, what makes Moebius strange is its reliance upon metaphor. It’s no coincidence that the final sequence begins in a subway station named for Argentina’s premier magical realist, Jorge Luis Borges. For as much as it may seem to be about a man looking for a train, Moebius never ceases to be about a nation confronting hidden truths that stubbornly resist the sunlight. The movie is effective as a tight little science-fiction tale, but the ghosts of the desaparecidos have another story they insist upon telling.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Pop culture’s given us glory trains, cocaine trains, trains to nowhere, and hellbound trains, but Argentinian director Gustavo Mosquera manages to wrap them all into one in this masterful mind-fuck.”– Gary Morris, Bright Lights Film Journal

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

CAPSULE: FREEWAY (1996)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Reese Witherspoon, Kiefer Sutherland, Wolfgang Bodison, Dan Hedaya, Bokeem Woodbine, Amanda Plummer, Brooke Shields,

PLOT: Teenager Vanessa flees foster care to go live with her grandmother and is picked up hitchhiking by Bob Wolverton.

Still from Freeway (1996)

COMMENTS: The tale of “Little Red Riding Hood” is known in the version set down by Charles Perrault, and later as one of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, but elements of the story date back to ancient Greece. (On the Aarne-Thompson-Uther index of folktales, it’s type 333.) It’s a sturdy trope, revisited many times over the years; we even found one version Canonically Weird. So to come upon Freeway, a modern-day take incarnation of Red and the Wolf’s perennial conflict, is not too surprising. What is different is the gusto with which the film embraces some of the darkest elements of our modern world.

Writer/director Matthew Bright brings two major twists to his take, both revolving around our perception of the heroine. Witherspoon embodies the guileless innocent of the fairy tale as a magnificent piece of white trash. Foul-mouthed and incapable of shame, Vanessa has stepped straight out of “Jerry Springer” and brought a bouillabaisse of lower-class tropes with her: her mother turns tricks, her stepfather is a layabout drug addict and molester, her boyfriend is a drug dealer, her cellmate is an emotionally immature lesbian, she takes down an aggressive Mexican girl to become the alpha of the detention facility, and she’s so illiterate as to barely be able to read the word “cat.” It is to Witherspoon’s credit that she never softens the rough-edges of her antisocial character, yet still earns our support. Vanessa is plucky, resourceful, and hews to a strict code of honesty and personal morality. Even in the face of danger, she refuses to be anything but herself. You don’t always like her, but you have to admire her perseverance.

This ties into the other twist that Freeway brings to the table: our heroine takes her fate into her own hands. No woodsman comes to her rescue; her boyfriend – named “Chopper,” natch – is unable to help her, and the police are unwilling, taking her at face value as a degenerate miscreant. (In fairness, her use of racial epithets doesn’t exactly endear her to the African American detective.) The only person willing to look out for Vanessa is Vanessa, and she doesn’t hesitate to take charge, escaping her social worker, crippling her attacker, and even staging a prison break. (She’s very funny showing up at a diner covered in blood and daintily asking for the washroom.) She is repeatedly punished for her initiative, because given the choice between a young woman who is hardened by her origins and an outwardly clean-cut school counselor who moonlights as a sexual deviant and serial killer, society is obviously going to side with the man. In this version of the fairy tale, the princess is all on her own.

Witherspoon is matched well with Sutherland, who makes a meal of his role by heightening all the different personas of the Wolf: false ally, malformed victim, gleeful sadist. Even though you’re never going to mistake Kiefer for a bleeding heart, he has a lot of fun playing up Bob’s false purity, so that when he does start to reveal his true colors, the over-the-top villainy makes sense as the other side of the coin. By the time he’s been maimed and emasculated by Vanessa, he’s become pure raging id.

As a character study, Freeway is pretty entertaining. As a story, it’s surprisingly conservative, holding tight to the source material. Some of the references feel fun and cheeky, but others are shockingly literal, from the basket that Vanessa totes on her journey to the disguise Bob dons to trick her in the film’s climax. That puts a lot of pressure on style to justify the film’s very existence. Roger Ebert, in his positive review, asserts his law that a movie is not about what it is about, but how it is about it. Ergo, Freeway is not about a girl who uses her wiles to elude a savvy killer, but rather about our insatiable hunger for lurid stories that confirm our suspicions that the world is a cesspool but there’s nothing wrong with us. For Ebert, that’s why Freeway works. The voice is perfectly attuned to the sensational subject matter.

Ironically, I would argue that all that is a major reason why Freeway is kind of a mess. It’s so focused on the satire, on replicating a child’s fable with a vulgar end-of-the-millennium veneer, that it never actually gets to be its own thing. Witherspoon is a delight to watch, but after a while, she appears to be a list of societal ills, not a character. It’s all about the stunt, and that’s distracting. Freeway’s engagement with the less privileged elements of society seems less about anger with the world’s institutions and more a prurient interest in the crude, the nasty, the tasty, tasty dirt. It’s clever, to be sure, but you end up wishing there was something more to it. All the better to watch, my dear.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a dark comic excursion into deranged pathology… plays like a cross between the deadpan docudrama of ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’ and the berserk revenge fantasy of ‘Switchblade Sisters.'”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: THE STENDHAL SYNDROME (1996)

 La sindrome di Stendhal

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Marco Leonardi, Paolo Bonacelli, Thomas Kretschmann

PLOT: A female detective investigating a serial rapist finds herself stalked by her quarry, while intermittently experiencing hallucinations when she looks at works of fine art.

Still from The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)

COMMENTS: A little over halfway through The Stendhal Syndrome, Anna announces (slight spoiler) that she’s overcome the Stendhal Syndrome. She’s not kidding; she doesn’t hallucinate again (although her psychological struggles are far from over). Argento had used the Syndrome, a fanciful and dubious affliction in which viewers supposedly swoon into a fugue state when confronted with great works of art, as an excuse to stage a handful of hallucination sequences which, it turns out, were inessential to the plot.

The fact that syndrome supplying both the film’s title and its high concept would basically serve as a red herring indicates either a certain sloppiness, or an admirable disregard for conventional plotting by an auteur who’s always favored atmosphere over storytelling, depending on your point-of-view. Combined with the script’s predictable final twist and a number of superfluous scenes, I lean towards the confused execution opinion. There are other missteps, such as some clumsy and unnecessary CGI (pills down a throat, a bullet passing through a head), which comes across as the director playing with a new toy rather than as an element enhancing the story. All of which is not to say that The Stendhal Syndrome is a failure. It borders on the psychologically profound: Anna’s shifting identities and a recurring theme of gender confusion reflect a sympathetic, believable, and engaging view of a rape victim’s trauma. As always, Argento sniffs out poetic camera shots, e.g. Anna’s reflection trembling in a blood-red glass of wine. And the movie’s opening—a dialogue-free seven minute sequence of Anna wandering through Florence’s Uffizi, scored to Ennio Morricone’s deceptively simple, increasingly ominous theme, and ending with the heroine passing through the canvas surface of Bruegel’s “The Fall of Icarus,” then the diving under its painted water, where she eventually locks lips with a bulbous fish—is one of this director’s best standalone sequences. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie can’t live up to the mysterious promise here. The Stendhal Syndrome not quite the resurrection of the classic giallo form it might have been, but Argento fans will find enough spooky psychodrama to savor to make it worth a watch.

It’s awfully creepy to reflect on Dario directing his daughter Asia through the brutal rape scenes (though to be fair, she was only cast after a couple of other actresses, Bridget Fonda and , withdrew from the project). Asia’s acting here gets mixed reviews, but she has a classic beauty in three incarnations—regular Anna, tomboy Anna, and glamorous blonde Anna—and indulges in enough B-movie histrionics to carry the film. She positively shines compared to the rest of the blandly European cast. The English dubbing is atrocious, almost perfunctory like in a bottom-shelf vintage 1970s giallo, and the Italian soundtrack is recommended.

Blue Underground’s 2022 Blu-ray release is identical to their 2017 three disc limited edition, minus the DVD. Originally, this set shipped in a substandard video transfer; that issue was rectified and should not be a problem anymore. This version restores an additional two minutes of dialogue that were missing from previous U.S. releases.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…as fans of the Italian horror director may have guessed, [the syndrome is] little more than a suitably arcane jumping-off point for another of the filmmaker’s bizarre examinations of madness, obsession, and bloodshed.”–Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle (1999 US release)

CAPSULE: ORGAN (1996)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Kei Fujiwara

PLOT: Detectives investigate an organ harvesting operation.

Still from Organ (1996)

COMMENTS: As a collaborator of —she was in his earliest films, and served as costume designer, cinematographer and female lead in Tetsuo: The Iron Man—Kei Fujuwara boasted a promising résumé. Unfortunately, her two features as director, of which Organ was the first, have proved disappointing—though undoubtedly weird. Although many elements of the Tetsuo aesthetic carry over into her solo work, thematic consistency and narrative drive are not among them. Organ is, instead, a confusing attempt at shock-art cinema that fails to engage many viewers.

Although pitched as a straightforward B-movie/horror narrative, Organ‘s story is related confusingly, with lots of ellipses, flashbacks, scenes and players who are poorly established or cut off prematurely, dreams and hallucinations, and too much time spent on the antics of ancillary characters who add nothing (a toilet-cleaning sequence). Painfully close attention will reveal that the story involves two detectives investigating an organ harvesting cult. One of the cops, Tosaka, is caught by the gang and kept around as a kind of talking houseplant after his limbs are amputated. The other cop, Numata, is taken off the case, but hangs around maintaining a semi-cordial relationship with the kidnappers. Tosaka’s identical twin also starts searching for the newly-minted amputee. Meanwhile, one of the gang freelances as a serial killer preying on schoolgirls. Director Fujiwara herself plays Yoko, the one-eyed enforcer of the harvesting gang, and she’s pissed about the extracurricular killings and sadistically disciplines the culprit (who’s also her brother). A flashback shows how his mom attempted to castrate him (incidentally poking out Yoko’s eye), providing his serial killer motivation. And there are another couple of characters running around who are not properly introduced or explained. It all somehow leads to a drawn out bloodbath with a bunch of characters you don’t care about and can’t easily distinguish fighting each other for reasons you’re not entirely clear about.

Not only is the script a mess, the movie is visually ugly—not at all what you’d expect from Tetsuo‘s cinematographer. Much of the action occurs in deep shadows so that you can’t follow who’s mutilating whom. When it’s not too dark to see what’s going on, it’s garishly overlit, showcasing its dilapidated, bleak alleyway and warehouse sets. The film is full of gruesome, but dull, autopsy-style gore. One character has ridiculous fluorescent green oatmeal caked on him, meant to represent putrefaction. (This effect probably would have looked impressive were the film shot in black and white.)

Then, somewhere in the middle of the movie, Fujiwara stages a lovely opium-fantasy scene in which a schoolgirl claws her way out of a (vaginally-designed) cocoon, only to complain of caterpillars in her belly. This single scene can hardly redeem the entire film, but it does prove Fujiwara has a vivid and sometimes effective imagination, even if her best ideas get buried under muddled execution. Also, this one scene is probably just barely enough to save this ordeal from a “” rating (though potential watchers may want to take into account how close it comes to earning that dreaded designation).

I believe that Fujiwara intended to tell a story here, but an overstuffed script combined with poor editing choices scuttled the enterprise. But I could be wrong; it’s possible the confusion is an intentional strategy. Either way, it’s not much fun.  Organ could be pitched as a Japanese take on a  film with a bit of script doctoring by —but the end result is nowhere as interesting as that description implies.

Fujiwara’s second feature, Id (2005), is essentially a sequel to Organ, set in the same universe, but in the future. A featurette included on the out-of-print Synapse DVD describes Fujiwara’s play “Organ 2” or “Organ Vital,” which has basically the same plot as what would become Id nine years later, and includes what appears to be early footage shot for the film. Sets and settings (the plastic-sheeting draped laboratory, the ghetto-like industrial housing complex with its overgrown alleyways) are reused in Id.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Like TetsuoOrgan is more art film than anything else, but whereas Tetsuo has an energy and drive and visual and technical creativity that engages the viewer, Organ lacks everything but for an occasional shocking idea and some bizarre imagery… One could, were one feeling forgiving, say that the movie is ever-so-slightly reminiscent of a David Lynch film, but one would also have to add ‘on a very bad day.'”–Abraham, a wasted life (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Mondo,” who accurately described it as “a strange and dreary Cronenberg like Japanese film.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: SPACE JAM (1996)

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DIRECTED BY: Joe Pytka

FEATURING: Michael Jordan, Bill Murray, Wayne Knight; voices of Billy West, Dee Bradley Baker, Bob Bergen, Kath Soucie, Danny DeVito

PLOT: Recently retired basketballer Michael Jordan is abducted by Bugs Bunny and the “Looney Tunes” gang to help them avoid enslavement by the evil Swackhammer, corporate overlord of Planet Moron.

COMMENTS: The other night, I let the mid-’90s wash over me like a quarter-century-old wave of dodged memories. They were all there: late-to-new-career Michael Jordan, mid-career Bill Murray, post-career “Looney Tunes,” and radio-friendly basketball hip hop . Wheaties, Gatorade, and KFC all had name drops or slogan references. And there I was: having very little idea who any of these athletes were. However, I did recognize the salient cinematic points of interest. Space Jam is the kind of movie that screams 1990s: the pacing, the musical score, the editing transitions, and the impressively hit-and-miss humor. Growing up, everyone I knew from school had seen this; now, I too can say that I have seen Space Jam, and I find myself utterly unbothered for having done so.

The story takes little more than sixty minutes to tell, which I gather is appropriate for a game consisting of four fifteen-minute quarters. Michael Jordan (Michael Jordan) has just announced his retirement from basketball in order to pursue his dream of mastering the world of baseball. He does badly on the Boston Barons team, but is beloved by the holdover fans. His life evolves from mildly depressing to mildly annoying when Stan Podolak (Wayne Knight) becomes his personal assistant. In the parallel story, alien overlord Swackhammer (voiced by Danny DeVito) orders his goons to filch a new attraction for his failing amusement park, sending them lightly brained but heavily armed to the land of “Looney Tunes.” The real and animated worlds collide mid-golf round while Jordan is on the links with Bill Murray and Larry Bird. Soon, the big game comes and…

…and at around the thirty-seven-minute mark, when everything had been set up, I began to worry. There were still fifty minutes of this benign nonsense to go, and I couldn’t imagine how far they might stretch it. However, this being “Looney Tunes,” I should have known to count on it not over-staying its welcome. Before the fifteen-plus minutes of credits, we meet sassy, mid-’90s “Don’t Ever Call Me ‘Doll'” hot bunny girl Lola, view an inordinate number of Bugs Bunny butt-shots, hear a delightful bitch-o-logue from Daffy Duck while he visits our world to retrieve Jordan’s lucky sports gear, and sit in adequately-entertained wonder while a well-paced finale teaches us the importance both of self confidence and having a Murray-ex-machina on the sidelines.

Space Jam is a childhood touchstone for many, and having watched it for the first time in (comparatively) old age, I begrudge them not a jot. This viewing is timely, too, as we brace ourselves for the new Space Jam saga; I know I’m not the only one hoping we can get Alfred Eaker‘s two cents on that forthcoming cultural feast.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This weirdly entertaining little curiosity, which seamlessly combines vintage Looney Tunes characters with live-action footage, is dominated by Jordan’s nice-guy personality.”–Joe Baltake, Sacramento Bee (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CRASH (1996)

DIRECTED BY: David Cronenberg

FEATURING: James Spader, Holly Hunter, , ,

PLOT: The survivor of a violent car crash immerses himself in a hidden world of auto accident fetishists and the dangerous and masochistic lengths they go to in search of sexual gratification.

Still from Crash (1996)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With three other entries, you can’t feel too bad about depriving David Cronenberg of another spot on our very full list. But Crash undeniably focuses on a very unusual kink, and treats its obsessive pursuers with respect and understanding.

COMMENTS: When Crash came out, the conversation inevitably focused on its central fetish. Given his filmography—a  CV. deeply fascinated with the horrors of the body—a tale of sexual adventurers who find carnal thrills in confronting the specter of mechanized death must have seemed like a natural match for David Cronenberg. But the literalization of the characters’ passions—both sexual and automotive—was almost destined to shock and offend, regardless of who was behind the camera. Talk of such an outré fetish sucked all the air out of the room, reducing Crash to a one-line précis: “that movie where people get off on car crashes.” (Eventually to be replaced by: “No, the earlier one; not the one that solved racism.”)

For anyone who went to the multiplex anticipating the sex-fueled romp that the controversy portended, it must have been a rude awakening indeed. Has there ever been a sadder movie about sex?  Crash‘s interests are not prurient, strictly speaking. The characters are deeply unsatisfied, sexually and in all other ways. It’s almost cliché by now to build a film around characters who “just want to feel something,” but Cronenberg earns it by investing in the emotional hollows of people who feel isolated and yearn for an experience that feels authentic and meaningful, no matter how transgressive or self-destructive.

Consider the vacant stares of the beautiful people that populate Crash, led by loveable freak-a-deek James Spader. His James Ballard (who, significantly, shares a name with the original novel’s author) has a gorgeous wife, a powerful job in the film industry, a modern-to-with-an-inch-of-its-life condo… and he is dead to the world. He and his wife trade tales of their infidelities in hope of getting a charge from the jealousy. It takes a fatal car wreck that leaves him seriously injured to jump-start his moribund psyche. He pursues it by hooking up with a fellow survivor of his crash, but finds even deeper connections through an obsessive photographer who masterminds a secret underground club of fellow auto-smashup aficionados who re-enact car crashes of the rich and famous. None of these other people seem any happier, desperate as they are to recapture a high that can only be achieved by risking life itself.

Even if you’re enough of a go-with-the-flow kind of person to buy into the whole symphorophilic angle, Cronenberg manages to find a way to heighten the stakes for you, most notably through one of Vaughan’s acolytes, a crash victim in braces (Arquette) with a large scar on her leg that goes from being a visual simile of a vagina to a literal substitute for one. Of course, if you’ve watched James Woods turn his chest cavity into a gun holster, this may not seem that shocking to you. But where other Cronenberg films explore the human body through the lens of hallucination or horror-fantasy, Crash sets those filters aside. Yep, they’re really going to do it like that. Yep, they’re really going to revel in it.

And that’s probably what turned off so many people about Crash. There’s no shield, no veneer of artificiality to protect you from these people and things they will do to make a connection. They’re too weird to be normal, but not weird enough to easily dismiss, and certainly not the kind of “weirdness” the mainstream can usually handle, like being into super sexytime. As Cronenberg himself says, “I love to disappoint people.” Judging from the agony Spader and Unger radiate as their ultimate act of intercourse falls a mite short of true satisfaction, Cronenberg is a very happy man.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the result is so far from being involving or compelling, so intentionally disconnected from any kind of recognizable emotion, that by comparison David Lynch’s removed ‘Lost Highway’ plays like ‘Lassie Come Home.'” – Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times [contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Kyle Conley. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

352. SEVEN SERVANTS (1996)

“Whether you take the doughnut hole as a blank space or as an entity unto itself is a purely metaphysical question and does not affect the taste of the doughnut one bit.”–Haruki Murakami

DIRECTED BY: Daryush Shokof, Stefan Jonas

FEATURING: , Sonja Kirchberger

PLOT: Wealthy, elderly Archie is visited in his villa by a mysterious woman who sings an aria to him. Realizing that his death is near, he places an ad requesting young male servants. When the first of these arrives, he tells him he will earn ten thousand dollars if he inserts a finger in the old man’s ear and leaves it there for ten days; he then hires three other men to plug up his other ear and each of his nostrils.

Still from Seven Servants (1996)

BACKGROUND:

  • Born in Iran but living in the U.S. and Europe, Daryush Shokof is a painter and experimental video artist. He co-wrote Seven Servants‘ script with his wife from a dream he had. This was his first feature film.
  • Shokof considered cinematographer Stephan Jonas’ contribution so important that the opening credits announce it is a film by “Daryush Shokof & Stefan Jonas.”
  • Anthony Quinn said that the finished project was ahead of its time, “a work for the 21st century,” and that release should be delayed. Although it played at two film festivals in 1996, Quinn, who was also an executive producer, decided to delay release after a timid reception. Soon after, the production company went bankrupt, so Seven Servants wasn’t screened again until 2009, and received a DVD release from Pathfinder Entertainment in the same year. Quinn died in 2001, which is why the film’s dedication speaks of him in the past tense.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Nothing less than cinema icon Anthony Quinn surrounded by four shirtless young men of different ethnicities, each with a finger stuck in his ear or nostril, with the whole assembly undulating like a dancing octopus as fruit floats over their heads.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Death sings an aria; Quinn’s plugged orifices; floating fruit

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: One of my favorite species of weird movies is the experiment in taking an absurd premise to its logical conclusion. Seven Servants starts in earnest when a man sticks his finger in Anthony Quinn’s ear and doesn’t let up until every last one of his apertures is closed. It’s end-of-life porn, a smooth jazz fantasy of death as an epicurean celebration of life.


Original trailer for Seven Servants

COMMENTS: So, what do you do if you’re an obscure Iranian expatriate artist and you have a dream about a dying man who hires Continue reading 352. SEVEN SERVANTS (1996)