Tag Archives: Absurdist

CAPSULE: RHINOCEROS (1974)

DIRECTED BY: Tom O’Horgan

FEATURING: , , Zero Mostel

PLOT: Stanley is an alcoholic accountant. Everyone else turns into a rhinoceros.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: O’Horgan’s adaptation of an absurdist play features too much stagey kookiness to work well as a film—which is a pity, because it has a weird premise that, when the tone is right, shows the potential it had as an unsettling commentary on the nature of man.

COMMENTS: Before ascending to the lofty heights of film criticism, I led a something of an artistically minimal life between college and my first reader-submitted review. So it is with a long-stretched arm that I reach back to my school days of Theater Drama, particularly when I was an assistant director my senior year of high school. Through early college I occasionally partook in what Tom O’Horgan described as “a ritualized version of a piece of art”, both offstage and on it. I bring you this somewhat long-winded reminiscence so that you may believe when I say: “theater” and “film” are two entirely different beasts.

As an adaptation of an absurdist bit of theater, the fine points of Hippopotamus‘ plot are inconsequential. Indeed, my summary above could probably be trimmed by a word or two. That said, I regret to inform you even the incredible talent of Gene Wilder on screen fails to compensate for the scattershot approach O’Horgan takes off of it. Half of it is too stagey—with an unfortunate tilt toward “zany”—which compromises Rhinoceros in two ways. First, the handful of scenes of rhino-related destruction and transformation come across as, “Look at how off-the-wall and Damn-the-conventions we are!” Second, Rhinoceros is only a comedy in the same way that Waiting for Godot is: the small snippets of absurd humor are only there to (thinly) paper over the underlying message about the dispiriting pointlessness of life.

On occasion, though, O’Horgan manages to hit the right tone. A scene with Stanley, Gene Wilder’s character, slinking—late—into the office after a discussion about Race, Religion, Capitalism, and Other Topics Found In Plays, crescendos into some buffoonery. It is immediately followed by a haunting interlude where Stanley leaves a subway car, elbowing past faceless masses, passed by faceless pedestrians and workers as he walks the streets. They aren’t actually faceless, they just have hats, buckets, anything covering them. Like the guilty revelers after a crazy party, they shun others’ gazes as they realize the epidemic’s magnitude: who will be next? This is echoed in an altogether strange hallway walk through fear, hitting an apex with a dream sequence/musical number that finds Stanley in a zoo cage as his work-crush cavorts with his friend.

Rhinoceros is almost saved by the presence of Gene Wilder. He seems to be the only one who got the memo that this project was being recorded on film as a movie. As the scene demands, he has a subtlety of expression, a softness of tenor, or a naturalistic reaction to the absurdness around him. If O’Horgan had grasped this need for understatement, the movie would have been a Certifiable genius piece of work. As it stands, the viewer can only hope for snippets of unnerving pathos littered sparsely through a big dish of hammy excess.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…not ideal film material, being an example of the kind of theater of the absurd that should be played like old-time farce within a stylized, three-sided set or, perhaps, within no set at all. Even though the film never shows us any real rhinoceroses, the realism of the movie camera is undeniable. It reduces things absurd to the status of the merely silly.” –Vincent Canby, New York Times (contemporaneous)

363. MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE (1983)

AKA The Meaning of Life

“The task I’ve been given seems absurd: to wait here on earth until I no longer exist.”–Ashleigh Brilliant

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: , Terry Gilliam (“The Crimson Permanent Assurance” and animated sequences)

FEATURING: , , , Terry Jones, , Terry Gilliam

PLOT: An introductory short appended to the main feature describes a mutiny among older workers at an accountant firm. Then the feature begins as a tank of fish with human faces ponder the meaning of life. The movie promises to explain that mystery in a series of comic sketches beginning with birth and ending with death (and the afterlife).

Still from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Monty Python comedy troupe began its life in 1969 in the BBC TV show “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” The show lasted three seasons, ending in 1974, after which the Pythons embarked on a series of three feature films, of which Meaning of Life was the last.
  • The Pythons refused to show distributor Universal Studios a script, instead providing a poem summarizing the film. Knowing the crew had a built-in audience, the studio approved the project.
  • Terry Gilliam’s segment, “The Crimson Permanent Assurance,” was originally supposed to be a sketch in the film, but it grew to such length that it was eventually included as a separate short film introducing the feature.
  • The Meaning of Life won the Grand Prix (a prize second only to the Palm d’Or) at Cannes.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Well, it’s obvious what the average person will remember most about this movie: that nauseating mountain of gluttony, Mr. Creosote, vomiting gallons of minestrone onto the waitstaff at a swanky French restaurant to make room for his evening meal (including one final “waffer-thin mint”). Due to our particular biases, however, we picked a shot from the “Find the Fish” sequence instead: an elephant in a tuxedo, a man with extended arms, and a punk transvestite with water faucets attached to his/her nipples.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Fishy Python chorus; nipple spout punk; Christmas in Heaven

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Monty Python were the pioneers of modern surreal comedy; without the groundwork they laid, there would be nothing to show on . Python is too important to weird culture to go unrecognized on a list like this, and The Meaning of Life is their weirdest big screen work, the equivalent of an R-rated “Flying Circus” episode with nudity, blasphemy, grossout humor, absurdity, and, of course, fish.


Original trailer for Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

COMMENTS: Their rambunctiously silly and absurd style of comedy Continue reading 363. MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE (1983)

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 his ear and leave 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)

CAPSULE: IT TAKES FROM WITHIN (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Lee Eubanks

FEATURING: James Feagin, Kristin Duarte, David Brownell

PLOT: A man and woman make preparations to attend a burial: existential dialogues and strange events happen along the way.

It Takes from Within (2017)

WHY IT WONT MAKE THE LIST: Given the suffering on display, the film could just as easily be titled Life Takes from Within, tearing away at the character’s insides. It’s certainly weird, but also derivative of films that have done existential angst much more effectively.

COMMENTS: Drawing equally from , , , and , this independent feature gets off to an engaging start with a vignette involving a patch of grass illuminated by high key overhead lighting. A male and female pair drag themselves across the grass in some form of wailing agony. A different couple (who eventually emerge as the film’s leads—James Feagin and Kristin Duarte) enter the light and stand statically before us, their faces unknowable and shrouded in shadow. A third male and female, much older, lie on a bed on the lit grass, before being assailed by Feagin and Duarte, who in turn are clamored on by the crawling couple at the beginning. Feagin lowers his head and body, prostrate before existence perhaps, while Duarte raises her hands to the heavens in appeal. It is a largely wordless and beautifully lit sequence begging multiple interpretations and capturing the viewer’s attention with its evocative and allusive nature.

Sadly, its largely downhill from that point on, with two opening exchanges between Feagin and Duarte setting the existential tone of the film and hinting at a “Waiting for Godot”-esque pairing (Feagin and Duarte in Vladimir and Estragon’s roles, respectively) without ever capitalizing on that potential. Feagin still believes in a “finish,” a possible meaning to their existence, while Duarte has resigned herself to the pointlessness of creation and seeks distraction and amusement. They are bound to their location by a funeral later that day, but their relationship has reached “its end” and they’ll go their separate ways to the service.

Capitalizing on the Gogo and Didi relationship could have injected some much-needed humor into the proceedings, but sadly director Eubanks opts for the bleak, existential angst of a Bergman films, without the dramatic weight of Bergman actors to soften the suffering. With her fleshy, open features and “make the best of it” attitude, Duarte makes a fairly engaging lead, a sympathetic figure in stark contrast to Feagin’s squinty scowl and petulant, unending mewling. Unfortunately Eubanks has us follow this disagreeable combination of Nick Cave and Hodor for much of the run time. If the male lead, genuinely suffering under the weight of reality, had ached in a manner that was sympathetic for the audience, i.e. his anger and pain Continue reading CAPSULE: IT TAKES FROM WITHIN (2017)

322. THE FALLS (1980)

Recommended

“I have often thought it was very arrogant to suppose you could make a film for anybody but yourself… I like to think of The Falls as my own personal encyclopedia Greenaway-ensis.” -Peter Greenaway

DIRECTED BY:

NARRATED BY: Colin Cantlie, Hilarie Thompson, Martin Burrows, Sheila Canfield, Adam Leys

PLOT: Some years after a “Violent Unknown Event,” the biographies of its survivors whose surnames begin with the letters “F-A-L-L” are filmed and released as one edition in an intended series of documentaries cataloging all those afflicted. The documentary presents ninety-two survivors’ stories, describing their lives in brief and detailing including the (invariably) bizarre symptoms each has suffered from since the Event. The scope of the endeavor and the unreliability of the source material results in the repeated derailment of the flow of information.

Still from The Falls (1980)

BACKGROUND:

  •  Peter Greenaway assembled The Falls over a five-year period from found footage and snippets filmed for other, mostly aborted, projects.
  • Various references to the fictional “Tulse Luper” pertain, indirectly, to Peter Greenaway himself: Luper is Greenaway’s self-made alter-ego.
  • Composer Michael Nyman provided the score for The Falls, marking his second (after the short Vertical Falls Remake) of eleven collaborations with Greenaway. They fell out over the director’s tampering with the composer’s Prospero’s Books recordings.
  • At three hours and fifteen minutes in length, Greenaway never intended the viewer to watch the film in one sitting. Many have done so nonetheless.
  • While The Falls was compiled for a number of reasons, one of its goals was to expand upon what Greenaway considered an unsatisfactory ending for Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Birds.
  • An early biography features, in photographic form, the twin Quay brothers, who at that time had not yet established themselves as masters of stop-motion animation.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Oh boy. In a three-plus hour Greenaway opus consisting of hundreds of shots, stills, interviews, and intertitles, this is tougher than usual. Still, I’m leaning toward a striking image that has stuck in my mind even months after watching The Falls. One of the victims of the V.U.E. sings forcefully at the camera to a tune familiar to those who’ve heard Michael Nyman re-working it for the bulk of his career. Among the ninety-two vignettes, she provides perhaps the most disorienting moment, with her staccato operatic performance and brazenly inscrutable expression, illuminated as if she were in a Rembrandt painting.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Avian flu; Dreamers of Water, Categories 1 to 3; Sympathetic Tinnitus and other syndromes

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Peter Greenaway cranks up his love of lists as high as the medium of film can reasonably take him in his first feature. Posing as a documentary assembled by a governmental information bureau, the list of ninety-two “V.U.E.” victims acts both as a long series of (sometimes very short) short stories and as an insanely thought-through running gag. It turns the notion of documentary on its head, undermining the authoritative voiceover and ostensibly pertinent footage (photos, interviews, documents, etc.) through the sheer volume of absurdity, whimsy, and subversive wordplay.


Spectacle Theater’s trailer for The Falls

COMMENTS: With virtually all of his movies, Peter Greenaway Continue reading 322. THE FALLS (1980)