Tag Archives: 1998

LIST CANDIDATE: SITCOM (1998)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Évelyne Dandry, , Adrien de Van, Lucia Sanchez

PLOT: The father of a bourgeois family brings home a white lab rat as a pet; taboos break and hilarity ensues as the rat has psychic (?) encounters with one family member after another.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: I asked my Magic 8-Ball about the List prospects of this Metamorphosis-as-a-French-comedy-of-manners with spontaneous homosexual awareness, paraplegia-onset sadomasochism, a mysterious pet rat, and a steady stream of patrician epigrams: “Signs point to ‘Yes’.”

COMMENTS: The spirit of Luis Buñuel lives on with François Ozon’s ultra-French take on the family comedy, Sitcom. All the Buñuel boxes (or, “boîtes”, if I may) are checked down the line: upper-middle class family, domestic setting, the crumbling of norms. Playing like its titular genre, Sitcom relies heavily on its capacity for clever silliness, while subverting that self-same genre’s cliched “Family meets Challenge to finish with a Happy Ending.” The family here, however, careens immediately over the edge, the challenge comes in the form of a possibly paranormal rat, and the happy ending is ripped straight from ‘s long-forgotten “whimsical” period.

The unnamed father (François Marthouret) returns home one afternoon with a lab rat, adding a pet to his already very nuclear family. That evening a dinner party brings together the father, the mother (Évelyne Dandry), their son Nicolas (Adrien de Van), their daughter Sophie (Marina de Van), their Spanish maid María, and María’s Cameroonian husband, Abdu. Immediately beforehand, Nicolas has a moment alone with the rat, and at table he is restless until he announces out of the blue that he is homosexual. The mother recruits Abdu—a physical education teacher with experience counseling teenagers—to talk to her boy. As Abdu tries to work out his approach, he sees the rat, gets bitten by it, and then proceeds to help the son confirm his homosexuality in an altogether hands-on kind of way. In turn, each household member has his or her life-changing encounter with the rat.

While Sitcom is an ensemble piece, with each family member’s collapse and growth explored, the focus ends up, almost through omission, on the father. During his son’s discovery and embrace of homosexuality, his daughter’s failed suicide that turns her into both a paraplegic and a dyspeptic dominatrix, and his wife’s eventual seduction of the son, he remains impressively unflappable. When Sophie asks him if he knows about what happened between his wife and son, he remarks, “Of course”, adding, “I don’t think incest will solve the problems of Western Civilization, but your mother is an exceptional woman.” However, Sophie’s hopes of seducing her father are soon quashed when he admits he does not find her attractive. Having only aphoristic rejoinders to scandalous revelations, the father figure remains something of a cypher.

One hint is given during the opening dinner scene. The father delivers a monologue about the Ancient Greeks, musing, “Homosexuality was an institution with no shame.” Here’s a man who is quite probably gay himself, but he retreats into the trappings of bourgeois convention. And Ozon somehow litters other contemplative and tender moments throughout the zany norm-breaking silliness. Maria comforts Sophie’s much put-upon boyfriend in an NC-17+ kind of way in one scene, and things are kept impressively platonic as Nicolas washes his sister’s hair while talking about his encounter with their mother, both naked in the tub together. And so it goes. I’m not certain on the particulars of how I stumbled across this movie during college, but I saw it around the same time as Visitor Q. That’s appropriate, as I cannot think of two more feel-good family comedies.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Francois Ozon’s absurd, outre “Sitcom” rips a page straight from the Luis Bunuel handbook of bourgeois contempt and writes a novella of relentless sociosexual ludicrousness brought to a Guignol head by the lab rat who’s moved in with the suburban family under siege… Ozon is seemingly attracted to our pop garbage, jamming a few sticks of Acme TNT in the structural silliness of our sitcoms and watching it go ‘boom.'” –Wesley Morris, San Francisco Examiner (contemporaneous)

331. DARK CITY (1998)

Recommended

“The fleetingly improvised men are transient figures of human shape, which naturally disappear or slowly dissolve after a short period of existence. Their appearance always is the result of a wonder.

Fleetingly improvised men lead a dream life. As a result, they are incapable of entering a regular conversation with people around them.

Fleetingly improvised men sometimes resemble dead people.”–M. Rautenberg, Daniel Paul Schreber: Beginner’s Guide to Memoirs of My Nervous Illness

DIRECTED BY: Alex Proyas

FEATURING: Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, Richard O’Brien,

PLOT: John Murdoch awakens in a bathtub, remembering nothing: certainly not the reason why the dead, mutilated woman is in the other room. As he travels through a night-cursed city to discover his identity, John is simultaneously pursued by a dogged police detective, a psychiatrist who knows more than he lets on, and a coterie of very pale gentlemen in black coats and hats. Ultimately he discovers that his alleged past is just that—and that the forces behind the frame-up are responsible for something far more grand and sinister.

Still from Dark City (1998)

BACKGROUND:

  • The opening narration, included over Alex Proyas’ objections, was included at the insistence of producers who feared the audience would be confused by being thrown into this world. Many fans think it’s a spoiler of the worst kind. Proyas’ director’s cut of the film excises the exposition.
  • Proyas based the Strangers’ looks and mannerisms on Richard O’Brien’s “Riff Raff” from Rocky Horror Picture Show. Proyas also wrote the role of “Mr. Hand” specifically for O’Brien.
  • The Matrix not only ripped off did a variation of Dark City’s central premise, it also re-used a number of its actual sets after Dark City‘s production had wrapped up.
  • Kiefer Sutherland’s character, Dr. Daniel Schreber, was named after an early 20th-century schizophrenic who wrote a memoir of his illness.
  • Proyas intended the final showdown between John Murdoch and Mr Book to be an homage to the famed manga comic (and anime) Akira.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll cast aside the montages of warping buildings, stylish noir streets, and sinister Stranger gatherings in favor of the mirroring scenes of Mr. Hand and John Murdoch after their respective imprints. Both rise from the gurney with comparable looks of grim determination, after painfully twitching through a series of forced memories.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Steampunk brain syringes; quick-rise concrete; creepy kid with teeth

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: About five years ago we argued that Dark City shouldn’t make the list. Since then, our minds have been changed—possibly while we were asleep. Any movie the plot of which can be described as “telekinetic collective memory space jelly bugs abduct tens of thousands of earthlings to populate a jumble-Noir cityscape in perpetual darkness in order to find out more about us” deserves a slot on the list of the weirdest movies ever made. The fact that it follows its dream logic into uncanny valley Gothic visuals is to its credit as well.


Original trailer for Dark City

COMMENTS: Focus. Focus. Every event flows into, bolsters, and undermines every other event. John Murdoch can defeat the Strangers Continue reading 331. DARK CITY (1998)

LOVE IS THE DEVIL: STUDY FOR A PORTRAIT OF FRANCIS BACON (1998)

Films about painters are usually recipes for disaster, primarily because the filmmakers are fans and slap a halo around the object of their adulation. Painters-as-film-subjects have generally fared better than composers-as-film-subjects (while we’re on the subject—we’re still waiting for ‘s long-promised Leonard Bernstein biopic). We can point to successes like Carol Reed’s treatment of Michelangelo, that cast Charlton Heston as the gay dwarf who painted the Sistine chapel (The Agony and the Ecstasy). That outdoes Chopin melodramatically dying at the keyboard of “consumption” in 1945’s A Song To Remember, which whitewashed the composer’s mental and career decline, along with his protracted, agonizing death (possibly from syphilis).

Whether painter or composer, artists tend to have tunnel vision, making them unpleasant bedfellows. Of course, not all artists are guilty—only the good ones. The hacks are innocent, which is why they’re usually forgotten.

No need though to worry about John Maybury’s 1998 opus, Love is the Devil: Study For A Portrait of Francis Bacon, though. It delivers. It’s not merely in the top tier of artist biopics, it’s a remarkable film in itself.

First, an aside about the painter. Francis Bacon emerged as a defiantly figurative painter at a time when abstract expressionism was the fad. He was deemed something of a traitor by the self-professed avant-garde establishment. (If you’re unfamiliar with abstract expressionism, just go to a local McDonalds or J.C. Penny stores and you’ll see plenty of latter-day examples hanging up—but rest assured you’ll never see Bacon’s hideous angst-ridden souls there). Bacon stuck to his guns, becoming one of the most relevant painters of the late century; thankfully, he is unworthy of canonization.

Still from Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998)The most striking visual aspect of Maybury’s film was a forced decision. Hypocritically, the Bacon estate was  aghast at the script’s unflattering portrait (based in part on Daniel Farson’s biography) of the artist-as-monster, and refused the director the right to use the artwork. Never mind that Bacon himself would have wanted it no other way. What did the estate want? A Hallmark card? The result is a once-in-a-lifetime improvised inspiration. Bacon’s work is never depicted. We only see him in working, which calls to mind Paul Gauguin’s advice to not concern oneself with the finished canvas, but rather concentrate on the act of painting. Cinematographer John Mathieson brilliantly makes up for the production restrictions by shooting the film as if it’s a Bacon canvas, composing it with the Continue reading LOVE IS THE DEVIL: STUDY FOR A PORTRAIT OF FRANCIS BACON (1998)

CAPSULE: SLC PUNK (1998)

DIRECTED BY: James Merendino

FEATURING: , Michael A. Goorjian, Annabeth Gish

PLOT: Young rebels grow up in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA—a location not very conductive to rebellion.

Still from SLC Punk (1998)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: One-and-a-half acid trip sequences do not a weird film make, especially when they’re just played for a quick laugh. SLC Punk is in fact a pretty wholesome teenage rumination which happens to be set against the background of the 1980s; in this modern day, it plays like Disney trying to make its own Trainspotting.

COMMENTS: Punk, especially ’80s punk, is a genre defined largely by arguments about its own definition, and SLC Punk spends a lot of time on the debate itself. At the end of the day, we have to give up trying to pin down the genre nobody can agree on and just move on, waving our hands at “that thing over there,” whatever you call it. Punk is Tao; to define it is to grip the air. And we all know the Billie Joe Armstrong quote, thanks.

With that out of the way, you will search far and wide for a comparably mature and realistic snapshot of punk rock culture, the Reaganomics ’80s, or Salt Lake City, for that matter. Stevo (Matthew Lillard) carries us through from start to finish, telling us of his life and coming of age. Along the way, we get some philosophizing about what it means to be a non-conformist, and how to harmonize your nonconformity with the world around you. Stevo’s cast of friends are characters in a punk-culture parable: some come to good ends, some to bad, and some just cruise along.

Not only does Stevo narrate, but he erases the fourth wall and takes us on live guided tours around his life, introducing us to his friends at a party as if we, the audience, were attending. Further segments become mini-documentaries, tackling the rivalry between punk and other cultures, the dichotomy of “posers” within the culture, U.S. vs. U.K. punks, what it’s like to score drugs or even decent alcohol in Utah, and other video-blog topics. We meet Stevo’s chum “Heroin” Bob (Michael A. Goorjian), his dad (Christopher McDonald) who doesn’t quite see eye to eye with his son but manages to have an amicable relationship anyway, his girlfriend Trish (Annabeth Gish), and his drug connection and part-time psycho Mark (Til Schweiger). There’s no real plot to be found here, just a series of interrelated vignettes in the day-to-day lives of these characters.

SLC Punk is a much-cherished cult classic which looks amazing for its six-figure budget. Its soundtrack is one of the greatest punk albums you will ever own; this is the music punks actually listened to in the ‘80s, as opposed to the music we think they listened to. While the movie puts the dyed mohawks and party hi-jinks up front, at its core it’s a thoughtful documentary masquerading as a fictional dramedy, one that wears its heart on its sleeve. It even winds up on a positive note, miraculously pulling through the nihilism to come to some upbeat conclusions, even though not everybody pulls through. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll be left with a story that transcends a punk culture exposé and resonates with any youth scene in any state during any decade. All of us, goths, mods, emos, slackers, hippies, yuppies, and hipsters, are all our own brand of punk… and in the end, we are all posers to somebody.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an absurdist coming-of-age comedy… likable for its outlandishness, less so when it shows a self-important streak. For all of Merendino’s jump-cutting affectations and other flashes of attitude, it’s finally as mainstream as its hero turns out to be.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: BABE: PIG IN THE CITY (1998)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: E.G. Daily (voice), Magda Szubanski, Mickey Rooney, James Cromwell

PLOT: After the porcine Babe accidentally injures Farmer Hoggett, Mrs. Hoggett (Szubanski) takes over the family farm, which immediately begins losing money. Desperate, she takes Babe to the big city for another shepherding contest (like the one that ended the first film), but the duo find more than they bargained for, including an elaborate hotel populated almost exclusively by animals.

Still from Babe: Pig in the City (1998)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While it’s definitely louder and more chaotic than the gentle original, this enjoyable sequel certainly doesn’t deserve its reputation as a bizarre miscalculation. If this website were about the 366 weirdest family films, Babe 2 might get on that list.

COMMENTS: Unlike the beloved, Oscar-nominated Babe, Babe: Pig in the City was a gigantic box-office flop, at least in the U.S. Reviews were mixed to negative (mostly negative), with the notable exception of Siskel and Ebert, who both lavished the production with praise. Audiences stayed home in droves, as they say, and the picture was D.O.A. from the first weekend. Everyone seemed to feel that the movie was too dark and sinister, and, watching the film now, one is struck by the fact that director George “Mad Max” Miller  does indeed direct the action as if he were still doing The Road Warrior, with plenty of looming close-ups shot with a fish-eyed lens and a frenetic, restless camera. There are lots of weirdness-for-the-sake-of-weirdness touches, like the way that Mickey Rooney (who never speaks) always looks as if he was interrupted in the middle of dinner and forgot to wipe his mouth. The “big city” is positively fanciful, featuring the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower and the Sydney Opera House all in one town; it’s an overload of visual invention, unlike the placid, bucolic setting of the original Babe. And James Cromwell is almost MIA, showing up at only the beginning and the end.

But Babe: Pig in the City is hardly the nightmare that it’s been made out to be. Doesn’t anyone remember the frights in The Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka, or most of the Disney classics? In the original Babe there is a scene where Farmer Hoggett aims a gun right into the pig’s face, intending to turn him into bacon; it’s still rather startling, so the more jarring moments in the sequel, as when Babe is chased by a snarling dog, shouldn’t be that surprising. And this is one sequel, that, unlike so many others, tries to do something entirely different from the original.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…scattered reports of the sequel taking on a Fellini-esque quality that wouldn’t translate to the masses proved utterly groundless… Miller and his army of technicians and animal specialists invent crazy quilt contraptions that spin off in weird trajectories when set in motion.”–Leonard Klady, Variety (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: OF FREAKS AND MEN (1998)

Pro urodov i lyudey

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Aleksey Balabanov

FEATURING: Sergey Makovetskiy, Dinar Drukarova, Viktor Sukhorukov

PLOT: The lives of two bourgeois families and a crew of pornographers cross paths in pre-revolutionary Russia.

Stil from Of Freaks and Men (1998)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With its sepia-tinted, silent movie feel and its clutch of strange denizens—conspiring maids, conjoined twins, and eerie criminals—Of Freaks and Men straddles the line between black comedy and social commentary with a combination of non sequiturs and S&M photography.

COMMENTS: The tone is set early and thoroughly as a series of sepia bondage photos are projected beneath the opening credits. The story begins in a style that would not be unfamiliar to the first movie-goers, as a brief montage displaying the primary characters plays through in black and white (accompanied by the background crackle of a scratchy film projector on the soundtrack). The film switches to sepia, and the theme of connivance is introduced when we see a young woman, obviously a maid, furtively whispering in Johann’s ear. What follows is an unlikely but believable tale of plots, peril, and pornography (known, of course, as “the 3 P’s of cinema”). Through underhanded means Johann, a purveyor of obscene photographs, manages to infiltrate the household of a bourgeois engineer and his daughter. Meanwhile his assistant and hatchet-man, Victor, comes across a surgeon who is the adoptive father of conjoined twins.

Their combined efforts allow them to move their “studio” from the basement of a nearly derelict building (that seems to be more than half a dozen floors underground) to an upscale flat in the heart of the town. The engineer’s daughter Leeza is immediately coerced into posing for their wares, stripping on demand to be lightly whipped by Johann’s grandmother who is carted out of a nearby cupboard for the purpose. The criminal’s cameraman, Putilov, is hopelessly smitten by Leeza, as is one half of the set of conjoined twins.

Things go on this way for “months” (according to a title card), with repetitive photos thrown together, sometimes taken in front of a paying audience. Henchman Victor eploits the twins more benignly, as they both sing and play the piano (and, most amusingly, the accordion, each half held by one of them as they perform a song). All good things must come to an end, though. Nana passes away, prompting Johann to break down and experience a seizure. The captives take this chance to get outta there and try and make it on their own—with limited success.

One could well argue that storyline alone is enough to plant this film firmly on the “weird” side of things, and as you would hope for from a movie given space at this site, it cements its position—and then some. While certainly not the first modern movie to pose as a throwback to silent pictures and sepia tinting, Of Freaks and Men does so with off-key humor and an appreciable lack of pretension. An out-of-the-blue the title card appears reading “Johann readied himself to make a wedding proposal,” and we see the stone-faced criminal, dressed as best as he knows how, on the prow of a small steam boat. His expression then is of a in need of exorcism. When Leeza is first photographed in the nude and when she sleeps with one of the two conjoined twins, the title cards announce, “And so, Leeza became a woman for the first time”, and “And so, Leeza became a woman for the second time”, respectively.

Russians widely viewed the movie as allegorical. The conjoined twins, Kolya and Tolya, symbolize Russia. Kolya, on the right, is intelligent, talented, and spurns the offers of liquor from the various ill-intentioned adults. His twin Tolya, on the left, is buffoonish— talented, yes, but quick to fall under the spell of a licentious maid who shows him some of the Johann’s photos, and then happy to adopt the regimen of alcohol his overseers foist upon him. Kolya represents the Russia that could be; Tolya represents what Russia so often has been (and is likely to continue being). Not knowing their father has been murdered, in the end they head to his hometown, in the East. Pursuing this path, the twins rush toward tragedy.

There is sadness in Of Freaks and Men, but it is coupled with wonderfully black humor. Its weirdness is best seen in its self-assured tone. The world this movie creates is believable, while at the same time flying in the face of expectation. I haven’t even mentioned its other weird accessories: the blind wife of the doctor who “[falls] in love for the first time” with Victor when he forces her to expose herself to him, the recurring train yard scenes, the sinister quality of the two antagonists, and the nebulous ending with its beautiful ice flows. Now that I’ve mentioned them, I can promise the curious amongst you that there are plenty others to be found.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“When I first saw Alexei Balabanov’s Of Freaks and Men at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1998, I thought it was touch and go whether a film quite so original, provocative, perverse and calculatedly offensive – not to mention weird in the extreme – would get British distribution at all… fans of Borowczyk, Peter Greenaway, Guy Maddin, early David Lynch and Jan Svankmajer’s Conspirators of Pleasure will have a field day, as will broadminded devotees of the more fantastical Russian novelists…”–Michael Brooke, The Digital Fix (DVD)

READER RECOMMENDATION: KHRUSTALYOV, MY CAR! (1998)

Reader recommendation by Giles Edwards

DIRECTED BY: Aleksey German

FEATURING: Yuriy Tsuliro, Nina Ruslanova, Mickhail Dementyev

PLOT: General Klensky, the head of a prestigious Moscow mental hospital in 1950s Soviet Russia, tries to evade KGB agents before he’s captured and forced to help the authorities in their last ditch effort to save a dying Josef Stalin.

Still from Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: With each cluttered frame stuffed with inky blacks and smoky whites, the nightmarish reality of Stalin’s last “Terror” makes for uneasy viewing as a nightmarish hellscape seeps ever more into the cruelty of the tragically mundane. This reality is made both more real and more unpleasant by the inclusion of the dissonant sound track.

COMMENTS: It took nearly a decade for Aleksey German to put together this ordeal of a movie about the last of Stalin’s great purges just before the demise of the Soviet Union’s ruthless dictator. The nightmare of pursuit lasts three days for the heavy-handed but sympathetic General Kensky, who rules like a benevolent counterpart to “Uncle Joe,” presiding over his medical facility in a cognac-fueled display of ordered madness. Surrounded by the grotesque (be it in the chaos of his hospital or the sinister order provided by the black-sedan riding apparatchiks), Kensky uncovers a plot to stage his fall from grace before fleeing to the home of a sympathetic former nurse. Disappearing at the hands of Stalin’s henchmen and being spirited away in the back of a “Soviet Champagne” truck, he meets with the bed-ridden, stroke-afflicted leader before his own disappearance is arranged for good.

The entire atmosphere of the film is made of deeply black blacks and sodium-light bright whites. Steam and disorder fill the interiors, while outside the tainted white of snow and dark sheen of the KGB’s cars make for an incongruous combination of the harshest of whites and darkest of blacks. Innocents are randomly round up (one unfortunate, in the wrong place and the wrong time, is unceremoniously dumped into the trunk of one of the ever-present black cars), and a fearful citizenry makes itself complicit with the state sponsored terror, hoping their compliance will direct the authorities’ suspicion and ire elsewhere.

What makes this movie weird is how it manages to capture society at its most grotesque. There are other movies that have individual images that are more troubling, but this film’s continuous streak of casual violence, cruel misfortune, and unsettling monotony of sadism in a fearful society grinds on for well over two hours of hyper-realism.

The soundtrack consists of oblique conversations continually interspersed with the sound of spitting, sneezing, blowing noses, grunts and all manner of human-noise unpleasantness. While no doubt this is realistic, the constant reminder of people’s bodily sounds makes the soundtrack seem more of a heightened reality: we see (and, more so, hear) humanity in all its discourteous glory.

German was a contemporary of (of Andrei Rublev and Stalker fame). But whereas Tarkovsky saw the grittiness of reality and transformed it into a primordial poetry that bordered on spiritual, German takes the opposite route and ground his films so thoroughly in the depths of the hellishly mundane, it is almost as if one is seeing and hearing Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”, but without the “Delight” (or even, for that matter, the “Garden”).

This movie was finished just before the Putin era began: made between the early and late ’90s, along with a number of other introspective post-Soviet Films. One becomes weary in the soul watching the hell this doctor and patriarch goes through in the name of the grisly interpretation of Soviet idealism that was Joseph Stalin’s Russia. The ostensibly uplifting movement of Soviet Realism in film is given a punch to the gut in this vision of nightmare turned into real-life.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One of the most disturbing Russian films of all time, Khrustalyov, mashuni (Khrustalyov, My Car!, 1998) provides the audience with a firsthand experience of the madness, paranoia and absurdity that pervaded Moscow during the final days of Stalin’s regime.”–Greg Dolgopolov, Senses of Cinema