Tag Archives: Absurdism

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CRUMBS (2015)

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DIRECTED BY: Miguel Llansó

FEATURING: , Selam Tesfayie, Mengistu Berhanu, Tsegaye Abegaz

PLOT: A long-dormant spaceship hovers over an apocalypse-blasted earth, so Candy goes on a quest to secure himself a seat on board.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Plenty of post-apocalyptic movies capture the dregs of civilization as well as Crumbs, but no others that I can think of have a “raised-hand” spaceship, Michael Jordan the god, or Santa Claus inside a bowling alley ball-return.

COMMENTS: Smirking absurdism and epic pathos are in constant tension in Miguel Llansó’s directorial debut. This friction is perfectly encapsulated during an encounter near the end of Crumbs, when we watch the protagonist, Candy, unbutton his shirt—in a display of machismo directed at a burnt-out Santa Claus—to reveal the iconic “Superman” garb. Only, Santa doesn’t recognize it, saying “it looks like a Nazi symbol.” This quip cuts right to the chase: the “superman” was a Nazi ideal, and it was such displays of toxic machismo that brought about the nuclear war.

“Crumbs” aptly describes of what civilization has been reduced to: scavenging and subsistence-level survival, all man’s machines crumbled to rust. Crumbs intersperses its quest narrative with history-laced interludes courtesy of a pawnbroker to whom various wanderers try to sell their findings. A cheap plastic “Max Steel” sword toy is not, as is commonly presumed, from the great artist “Carrefor“, but by “Mattelo“; a Samurai Turtle dated “third century” was “worn by Molegon warriors as a lucky amulet”; “Dangerous“, by Michael Jackson—a third-century farmer—is a gift worthy for a wedding. These items, and more, are crumbs left along Candy’s path as he travels to find Santa Claus in an abandoned pond in the old city.

The narrative is triggered by ominous signs at the bowling alley which Candy (Daniel Tadesse) and Birdy (Selam Tesfayie) have adopted as their home, untold numbers of years after a hinted-at world war. Birdy is convinced that the spaceship—which had hitherto been idling in the sky—has begun to start its engines, and the magnetic field being emitted has triggered the alley’s lights to flicker and the ball-return machine to reactivate. Candy goes off to find the one man who can secure their place on board, while Birdy stays home. She regularly prays at their shrine to Michael Jordan, but is haunted by the voice coming from the ball-return. Investigating it, she finds Santa Claus inside, pacing around a display of toys, asking what her Christmas wish is.

While Llansó’s sophomore feature tickled with its high energy and zany surrealism, Crumbs is a more contemplative work. Its tongue-in-cheek tone is couched within a soft, dreamy tone. The natural beauty of Ethiopia’s wildlands, alongside decayed industrial hulks of machinery, is on full display at the hands of an able and loving cinematographer. Candy is an unlikely hero, a deformed (though not un-handsome) fellow trying to do right by his lover. The weight of Crumbs‘ reality anchors the absurdity until the final moments of the credits. The spaceship sails peacefully toward the æther as two men inside talk about vintage music; then it explodes. Even if reduced to crumbs, Earth is all we’ll have.

Crumbs is available for separate purchase, but it was also released as a bonus feature on Arrow’s 2020 Limited Edition Blu-ray of Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…it’s hard not to succumb at least somewhat to this sci-fi whatsit’s strange, whimsical spell.”–Ben Kenigsberg, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CHANNEL 366: FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER’S MONSTER, FRANKENSTEIN (2019) / ANIMA (2019)

Since we last visited our friends at Netflix, things have taken a turn on the streaming weirdness front. The dark future that may await us was succinctly outlined in this Fast Company headline: “Netflix canceling ‘Tuca and Bertie’ is a bad sign for all the distinctive, weird shows streaming is supposed to keep alive”. The lack of love for this quirky animated comedy—a cousin to the more widely acclaimed BoJack Horseman by way of the character design of Tuca creator Lisa Hanawalt—would seem to bode ill for fans of more offbeat programming, especially with the broader success of critically reviled features like Murder Mystery and Bird Box.

On the other hand, one of the service’s biggest brands, “Stranger Things,” is simply not the kind of mainstream fare you would be likely to find on network TV. Someone with the time and patience to scroll through all of the available programming would also find such offerings as the fiercely impenetrable “The OA,” the coal-black premise of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” the deeply uncomfortable comedy of “I Think You Should Leave,” or the shifting tone of animated anthology “Love, Death & Robots.” And the decision to welcome back “Russian Doll” for a second season suggests weird is not quite yet off-limits.

So let’s hold off for a bit on eulogizing Netflix’s middle finger to the mainstream, and let’s instead turn our attention toward two recent debuts which have tripped the weirdometer for critics. They also point to two very different possible outcomes for on-demand bizarre entertainment.

Still from Frankenstein's Monster's Monster, FrankensteinWhen it comes to mockumentary, there are a number of goals the filmmaker can pursue. The granddaddy of them all, This is Spial Tap, joyously punctures of the legends of rock stars. A more recent example, Netflix’s own American Vandal, sets its sights on the dubious techniques and motives of “real-crime” films and podcasts. Another ongoing series, “Documentary Now!,” is concerned with replicating the look and feel of the subjects it lampoons with startling faithfulness and exactitude. The goal of “Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein” seems to be to let star David Harbour be silly. At the outset, Harbour explains that he is investigating the fateful performance that destroyed his father’s career, an early 70s live (?) TV broadcast of a curious adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic in which the infamous scientist (also played by Harbour in full Wellesian pretentious-actor mode) poses as his own monster in order to secure funding.

It’s all very absurd. But there’s a big problem with “Frankenstein’s…”: all else aside, the program fails in its singular goal to be funny. You can tell the creators think they’re being hilarious, but nothing is believable enough to be satirical, and nothing is wacky enough to be independently uproarious. Harbour is meant to seem thunderstruck Continue reading CHANNEL 366: FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER’S MONSTER, FRANKENSTEIN (2019) / ANIMA (2019)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MAGGIE (2018)

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DIRECTED BY: Yi Ok-seop

FEATURING: Lee Ju-young, Koo Kyo-hwan, Moon So-ri, Koo Gyo-hwan

PLOT: Maggie the catfish acts as a piscine confessor for Yoon-yong, who’s going through some problems with her work and home life; the fish predicts the appearance of some troubling sink-holes springing up (er, down) around the greater Seoul area.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: A psychic fish narrator, social commentary via sinkholes, and the appearance of a “manic pixie dream boy” all fuel this strange hybrid of dark Wes Anderson and light Quentin Tarantino.

COMMENTS: Many years ago, I was forced to take a seminar class for my degree and ended up enduring a semester-long trial entitled “Filmmakers with a Social Conscience.” It’s not that I don’t want awareness raised about society’s ills, but I had the suspicion before-hand that most of the movies would be heavyhanded and tediously paced. My fears proved correct at the time, but now, having seen Yi Ok-seop’s directorial debut, Maggie, I now must admit that lightning can strike even the smallest targets. And it strikes well, with humor, quirkiness, and pathos (a “p” word that seems to be cropping up a bit this festival).

A pre-penetration x-ray circulates among the staff of a small hospital in the outskirts of Seoul. Rumors fly about whose body parts were caught in the act of lovemaking, with nary a thought as to the who or why behind the snapshot’s existence. The following day, every staff member calls in sick except for the young nurse who’s “in” the photo and an osteopath who’s just about lost her trust in her fellow man. Subsequent events involving sinkholes, unemployment, and relationship dynamics proceed apace, all narrated by the omniscient titular character, Maggie the catfish.

There is a vibrancy throughout Maggie that weds the two dominant themes of whimsy and social commentary. There is brightness everywhere: the outdoor scenes, the well-lit hospital, and even the night-time streets illuminated by the colorful, flashing glow of warning lights surrounding the big holes in the ground that keep appearing. Chapter designations like “Everyone Likes the X-Ray Room” and “The Stairs of Death” act as synopses along the way while also providing wry counterpoint to the events. And though it has a cheerful, meandering nature throughout, everything gets wrapped up nicely—through the convenience of a key character who’s swallowed up by the ground at an important juncture.

Maggie‘s weirdness isn’t “in your face”, but more of a gentle squeezing of the shoulders from start to finish. There are definitely overtly odd things (the catfish, the eccentric hospital, and the ballad to “Maxine” around the midpoint), but it’s all very low key. What swayed me toward inclusion was the fact that all of this is being done for a purpose (and, I learned in a subsequent interview with the filmmakers 1, was funded not only sight-unseen, but script-unseen). My one criticism would be that when the story focuses on the slacker boyfriend, the movie rambles a little pointlessly—but even that’s apt, considering the character we’re following. And though I didn’t quite agree with another choice, I was impressed by the director’s decision to eliminate a character without allowing for an explanation. Director Yi Ok-seop and writer/producer/actor Koo Kyo-hwan strongly feel that violence has no excuse, and they make that point in a memorable way that really lets it… sink in.

WHAT THE CRITICS ARE SAYING:

“The director is riffing on the idea of how misunderstandings snowball, but, without a solid central idea to anchor the wackiness, the exuberantly nonsensical chaos of this movie is likely to have only niche appeal.”–Wendy Ide, Screen Rant (festival screening)

323. CATCH-22 (1970)

“You’re a very weird person, Yossarian.”–General Dreedle, Catch-22

“When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”–Randall Jarrell, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Mike Nichols

FEATURING: Alan Arkin, Martin Balsam, Jack Gilford, , , , Bob Newhart, , Paula Prentiss, , Richard Benjamin, , Charles Grodin, , Gina Rovere, Olimpia Carlisi

PLOT: The story is told out of sequence, but begins with Capt. Yossarian, an Air Force bombardier at a Mediterranean air base, being stabbed in the back by what appears to be a fellow soldier. This leads directly into the first of a recurring sequence of flashbacks where Yossarian tends to a young wounded airman in the belly of his bomber. Further flashbacks reveal a protagonist of questionable sanity in the company of equally insane flyboys, including a quartermaster who schemes with the Group commanders to create a black market syndicate that morphs into a fascist regime.

Catch-22 (1970)

BACKGROUND:

  • Joseph Heller published the absurdist comic novel “Catch-22” in 1961, based on his own experiences as a bombardier in World War II.
  • Orson Welles had attempted and failed to acquire the rights to the novel, a fact Mike Nichols was not aware of when he cast him as General Dreedle.
  • Catch-22 was Nichols’ followup to his smash hit The Graduate. He once again worked with screenwriter Buck Henry (who also played Colonel Korn here). The screenplay took two years to produce.
  • Filming (in Rome and Mexico) took more than six months to complete. Cinematographer David Watkins would only shoot the exterior scenes between two and three o’clock in the afternoon, so that the lighting would be exactly the same. This meant the cast and crew were sitting around for long periods of time with nothing to do, which led to resentment on the set.
  • Catch-22 is credited as the first American film to show a person sitting on a toilet, and the first modern Hollywood film to feature full-frontal nudity.
  • Second Unit director John Jordan plummeted to his death when he fell out of the camera plane while daring to film a flight scene without being strapped into a harness.
  • Although the film did not bomb at the box office, it was overshadowed by ‘s similar (but lighter and more realistic) M*A*S*H*.
  • George Clooney is producing a new adaptation of the novel as a six-part miniseries scheduled to air on Hulu.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The gruesome death of Hungry Joe, who’s cut in half by an airplane propeller while standing on a platform in the beautiful blue Tyrrhenian Sea.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Urine I.V.; offscreen portrait switching; friendly fire for hire

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Catch-22 was a novel of paradoxical, circular logic and inverted moral geometries. The certifiably insane Yossarian is saner than his schizoid comrades and commanders—but only because he is the only one who realizes he is crazy. The movie doesn’t soar to the heights of the book, but it creates its own weird all-star universe of moral decay and dystopian reasoning. There aren’t twenty-one other catches. One catch serves as a catchall. Catch-22. It’s the best there is.


Original trailer for Catch-22

COMMENTS: Adapting Catch-22, a novel whose building blocks are Continue reading 323. CATCH-22 (1970)

CAPSULE: WAITING FOR GODOT (2001)

DIRECTED BY: Michael Lindsay-Hogg

FEATURING: Barry McGovern, Johnny Murphy, Alan Stanford, Stephen Brennan

PLOT: Two chatty hobos wait in a landscape of rubble for the arrival of the mysterious Godot, who seems increasingly unlikely to show.

Still from Waiting for Godot (2001)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There is nothing that’s weird about this version of Waiting for Godot that isn’t weird about its source material. The film transplants the surreal masterpiece to the big screen fully intact, serving as a filmed document of the classic play. As possibly the greatest piece of existential theater ever devised, Godot is self-evidently strange in its minimalist approach to the great questions of man’s purpose and the presence of a higher power, and its defiant resistance to straightforward explanation or simple interpretation. The film is respectful, even reverential, and serves as a straightforward representation of the work for anyone who has no other opportunity to experience it live.

COMMENTS: There’s a certain amount of cheeky fun in writing up the plot synopsis for Waiting For Godot. After all, ’s landmark play is probably literature’s finest example of “the story where nothing happens.” There is no arc, no growth, no movement whatsoever. Two men wait for Godot to come; he does not. They say they will leave; they do not. The particulars change from one act to the next (a circumstance that draws notice, if not comprehension, from one of the principals), but the result is the same. The entire play is predicated on nothing happening. Which makes its point all the sharper; there may be no purer expression of the essential, beautiful futility of life. As Beckett wrote in another context, “I can’t go on; I’ll go on.”

As such, Godot doesn’t really gain much from realization in film. The abstract, desolate setting (sometimes rendered as a bare stage) is given a gritty, realistic feel on the screen. Lindsay-Hogg does mix broad overhead shots with attentive close-ups, expanding the emotional vocabulary of the actors. But there’s only so much you can do without wrecking all that is uniquely Godot. It’s not like we’re going to “open it up,” following the characters to a new setting or adding in flashbacks to Vladimir’s life before. The play’s the thing, and film (a medium for which Beckett himself did not think Godot appropriate) is just a means of capturing it in perpetuity.

This Godot is part of an ambitious effort to film all of Beckett’s plays. It stands out from its brethren: lasting longer than any of the playwright’s other works, boasting an unusually large cast (of five), featuring actors who exchange dialogue and are allowed to move about the stage. Beckett was relentless in eliminating anything inessential or ornamental; he wrote the original Godot in French, a language in which he was less skilled, to keep his language simple. Over time, Beckett’s plays get shorter and shorter, he dispenses with names, puts his actors in pottery or buries them in sand, and begins to favor incomprehensible monologues. By contrast, Godot is downright old-fashioned.

It’s also easy to forget how enamored of early film comedy Beckett was (a love borne out in his only venture into the medium, Film). The persistence of innocence in a cruel world, the difference between erudition and wisdom, the bowler hats: all put one in the mind of or . It’s easy to see why comedians and clowns have been drawn to the leading roles, from Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin to Steve Martin and . This film’s cast is made up of stalwart Irish actors who had performed the play together many times, so while they tap into the comedy inside the absurdism, the performances are smartly crafted, unaffected, and comfortable with Beckett’s voice. (They even opt for his preferred pronunciation of the title character’s name: GAH-doe.)

But I’m sidestepping the key question: Is it weird? There is a factor that is prodding me to include it, and that is the presence of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead on the List, which is based on a play that I find greatly entertaining but far more explicable and less “weird” than this. But while Godot is most certainly a challenging play, one which posits any number of unlikely and unexplained premises, and one in which answers are not forthcoming (Beckett argued that the play says everything there is to say), in the final analysis, Godot filmed is still Godot, no more than it was, weird by virtue of its origins rather than anything inherent to the film itself. This Godot is an excellent record of the play, but like a movie of a lobster-and-grape-jelly sandwich, it’s only weird by virtue of what it captures, not what it is. If you’re looking for a Waiting For Godot that does more to take advantage of the unique qualities of the movies, well, you’re going to have to wait.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[John Murphy’s] performance is pathetic, heartbreaking, and surrealistically hilarious… Although ‘Waiting for Godot’ is basically a single set piece, Lindsay-Hogg’s camerawork and blocking is so inventive that the theatricality of the work (which bogged down previous televised versions) is carefully reinvented to accommodate the cinematic medium. The result is not a filmed play… but rather a thoroughly cinematic experience. – Phil Hall, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

(This movie, along with the entire “Beckett on Film” cycle, was nominated for review by Caleb Moss. Suggest a weird movie of your own here).

262. THE GREASY STRANGLER (2016)

“I was surprised by reactions to the film. I thought people would find it funny or absurd, but people look really shaken when they come out. When we screened it at South by Southwest, there was a filmmaker I know who makes very strange films. And afterward, he looked like he had been through the wringer: ‘I’ve never seen anything like that. I thought, ‘Oh, come on.’ What can seem fun to one person can seem totally deranged to someone else.”–Jim Hosking, Rolling Stone

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Michael St. Michaels, Sky Elobar, Elizabeth De Razzo

PLOT: Big Ronnie eats an extremely greasy diet and runs a scam tour of L.A. disco locations with his unmarried adult son and live-in cook Brayden. At night he transforms into a lard-soaked monster who strangles people. When Brayden catches the eye of a girl on the tour, Big Ronnie becomes jealous and determines to seduce her himself.

Still from The Greasy Strangler (2016)
BACKGROUND
:

  • Jim Hosking worked as a music video and commercial director making short films on the side since 2003. His big break came when his bizarre and transgressive “G is for Grandad” segment of ABCs of Death 2 impressed that film’s producers, two of whom went on to produce The Greasy Strangler. and  also served as executive producers on the film.
  • The movie was supported and partly financed by the venerable British Film Institute.
  • This was 72-year-old actor and former punk-club owner Michael St. Michaels’ first leading role—unless you count his film debut in 1987s direct-to-VHS The Video Dead.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Big Ronnie’s big prosthetic, flapping in the car wash blower’s breeze.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Disco spotlight; pig-nosed stranglee; “hootie tootie disco cutie”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Gross, greasy and bizarre, ‘s debut feature is the closest thing you’ll see to a modern Trash Trilogy film, filtered through the fashionable surreal comedy sensibilities of Tim and Eric or . Strangler is more than the sum of those influences, however: it is its own little world where a lisping man with a pig snout can walk around town without raising an eyebrow, and a spotlight might suddenly appear on an alley wall for a character to do a spontaneous dance number. The fat-to-nutrient content is too out-of-whack for this to count as healthy entertainment, but it’s fine as a guilty pleasure treat. It’s too big, bold and weird to be ignored; it’s not 2016’s best movie, or even the year’s best weird movie, but it is this season’s most insistently in-your-face assault on taste and reality.


Short clip from The Greasy Strangler

COMMENTS: “Let’s get greasy!” shouted the producers from the Continue reading 262. THE GREASY STRANGLER (2016)