Tag Archives: Absurdist

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: GREENER GRASS (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe, Beck Bennett, Neil Casey

PLOT: In the pastel roadways of an uncanny suburbia, Jill gives her baby away to a friend and then starts losing everything else she holds dear.

Still from Greener Grass (2019)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: In case you were thinking that Hell Suburbia was over and done with as a genre, think again. Greener Grass piles the golf carts, dental perfection, tight-femme-mom-chic pinks, and non-sequitur Valley Girl dialogue high on a teetering mound of absurdity, satire, comedy, and dystopia.

COMMENTS: Everyone envies Jill (Joceyln DeBoer). Her best friend Lisa is jealous of her baby immediately upon belatedly noticing it for the very first time. Another friend is amazed at the canapés she brought to her daughter’s birthday party. (“They’re so small!”) Her son is in the school’s elite “Rocket Math” program. Her home is pitch-perfect “Better Homes & Gardens” elegance, complete with a new pool whose oxygen filtration system makes its water, according to her husband, delicious. Her teeth are getting better, too; like every other adult in her town, she has braces.

Beginning with an impulsive effort to please her best friend (Dawn Luebbe, all glorious awkwardness and legs), Jill’s life starts sliding downhill. Handing off her baby to its new owner (cue portentous music) we see Jill’s awkward smile, which continues during the opening credits, filling up the entire screen, the rictus grin quavering throughout, then continuing to quaver on and off through the entire movie. Greener Grass blinds us with its pink and glossy-white vision of a post-utopian Suburbia. These folks have every comfort, and so fall back on one-upmanship and staggering vapidity. Jill’s cracks at the start become fissures during her husband’s 40th birthday party, when their son, himself quavering in his awkwardness, feebly croons the “birthday song” before collapsing into the immaculate pool, emerging as an immaculate yellow retriever. (His father is thrilled at the change.)

I don’t know the history of evilly pristine suburbs, but David Lynch‘s Blue Velvet is as good a landmark as any. While his had an underside of all-too-human unpleasantness, Greener Grass doesn’t allow for a speck of what we’d recognize as genuine humanity. There is no controversy or evil, just pettiness: withering criticism of a child’s tardiness—directed against Jill; dismissiveness of a gift of bean dip (being a mere five layers instead of seven)—directed against Jill; chastisement for being “rude” at a four-way intersection—directed against Jill.

Greener Grass is something of a feminist movie, but it points out that some of women’s worst enemies can be their fellow women. Jill’s friend attempts to take over her life from the start, beginning with the baby, before moving on to subtly co-opting everything else. This Mean Girls reality—one seen through (ominously) rose-colored lenses—creates something entirely unexpected: a sympathetic character amidst the dross of upper-middle class nothings. I couldn’t describe the tone simply as being “heavy-handed”; although it’s like a shotgun to the face for ninety minutes, it’s saturated as much by weirdo, “Upright Citizens Brigade”-style comedy as it is with social criticism. “Miss Human”, the second-grade teacher, with her Oregon Trail-style lesson plans; the “French”-style bistro replete with beret-wearing waiter fops; and the father’s beaming pride at his son’s new speed and charisma as a dog: these are all odd, and well executed—and taken as far as possible without letting up. Jill’s torment never ceases, but she never stops smiling. Ever.

Greener Grass was expanded from a 15-minute short (a Saturday Short selection, natch)—you can view it here.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…future cult favorite — a fate that seems all but guaranteed for this weird and wonderful comedy of manners…” –Peter DeBruge, Variety (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BIRDS WITHOUT FEATHERS (2018)

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DIRECTED BY: Wendy McColm

FEATURING: Wendy McColm, Alexander Stasko, Lenae Day, Cooper Oznowicz, William Gabriel Grier, Sara Estefanos

PLOT: The lives of six odd characters intersect in increasingly surreal ways.

Still from Birds Without Feathers (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Wendy McColm’s debut feature is a defiantly odd duck; a near-comedy about self-absorbed young people desperate to connect and perversely unable to get out of their own way. It seems like the kind of script you might write in the aftermath of a post-breakup acid trip.

COMMENTS: Each of the characters is alone, talking to themselves, when we first meet them. A depressed-sounding man (with an effeminate voice) recites bad advice into a tape recorder (“sometimes, you have to put others down to give yourself a boost in self-esteem”). A Russian immigrant practices saying “nice day” in front of a mirror, trying to erase his accent. A woman takes selfies in her underwear and uploads them to Instagram.  A stand-up comic recites his (not funny) routine and pumps himself up for a performance. A nurse practices saying the word “ow.” One other character pops up (or at least, is properly introduced) after the opening scenes: a chameleon-like woman who lives in the desert and is easily the strangest of them all. Even though these people will spend the rest of the movie bumping into each other, they remain, for the most part, alone; locked inside themselves by their own insecurities.

Social interactions in Birds Without Feathers often make little sense. In one scene, the stand-up is sucker punched by a passerby, then verbally abused by the passing nurse; he then asks for, and receives, her number. Several of the characters do “successfully” hook up together (never more memorably than in one scene that may change the way you think of Jeff Goldblum forever). But more commonly, social intercourse involves a coworker complaining that the dead look in your eyes is making him feel weird, or someone using “you know the awful thing about you?” as a first date conversation starter. A sense of lonely, uncomfortable melancholy pervades.

Writer/director Wendy McColm plays the Instagram model, and congrats to her on giving herself such an unflattering role: not only is Neil/Janet pathetic, she’s also the only character with (bizarre) nude scenes, and she gets her face spackled with white goop while making an uncomfortable confession. McColm’s character is probably the closest thing to a central presence, but the stories are fairly well-balanced between the six main players, with no one performer overly dominating the narrative. Although their lives all intersect at some point, there isn’t much of an overarching plot. Birds Without Feathers is really about a cast of eccentric characters put into a series of sketches. Some are dramatic, and even touching; some are funny (or almost funny, in an awkward shaped-like-a-joke-but-lacking-a-punchline way); and some are just flat-out weird. They’re not all hits, but there are enough good moments and perspective switches to keep you interested. It should go without saying, however, that this one is not for normies.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…plays like ‘Mulholland Dr.’ and ‘Magnolia’ took a detour through Silver Lake, emerging worse for wear from the journey.”–Kimber Myers, The Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: “DIVORCED DAD” (2018)

DIRECTED BY: , ,

FEATURING: Matthew Kennedy, Gilles Degagne

PLOT: A Divorced Dad and his even sadder-sack co-host, Gilles, produce a public access TV show that continually goes off the rails.

Still from Divorced Dad (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The format—cancelled web series repackaged as a home video release—rules it out from consideration as one of the weirdest movies of all time. It’s more of a supplemental oddity for weird movie fans (even more specifically, for fans).

COMMENTS: Served papers by YouTube after only five official episodes, Canadian comedy troupe Astron-6’s “Divorced Dad” (based, as the opening credits to each episode explain, “on a dream had by Divorced Dad”) never really got the chance to find its footing. Star Divorced Dad and co-host Gilles were developing a classic abusive, co-dependent comedy duo dynamic (if Divorced Dad was as passive-aggressively condescending to his wife and children as he is to the admittedly annoying Gilles, it might explain why he finds himself single). After Divorced Dad’s dreams were shattered for a second time when his mock public access webseries was yanked from the platform, Kino Lorber came to the rescue with this home video release of the show’s complete YouTube run, plus two completed but unaired episodes, and some odds and ends to pad out the disc.

The episode that got the show pulled—“My Sis,” in which Divorced Dad accidentally signs up the Islamic State as beneficiary of his charity bingo show—is hardly the hot stuff one might have predicted, given how quickly the heavy fingers at YouTube corporate pushed the ban button. Ironically, “My Sis” may also have been their most conventionally structured comedy, and could have been a breakout episode. The series’ other sources of mirth were more conceptual bits like Gilles demonstrating less-then-delicate bedroom techniques on fruit, Divorced Dad getting into it with a female “restler,” and the “Treasure Man” parody, a microbudget attempt to create an “Indiana Jones”-style adventure series. Most notably for us, in three episodes he suddenly finds himself lost in existential netherworlds: one where he’s driven mad by the show’s bad sound, one where he overdoses on blue slushies, and one where he zones out while Gilles is misbehaving in the supermarket. The sly surreal comedy in these segments would have been a bit abstruse for the average YouTube surfer.

The visual aesthetic is a drunken take on early 90s cable access TV shows, with vertical hold issues, wandering picture-in-picture effects, and strange lo-fi wipes. Divorced Dad’s video board operator doesn’t pay much attention to what’s going on in the show, instead spending his time checking out what happens when he spins the various knobs and dials before him. The end result is a show that looks like something you might find on an tape, with the absurdist comic sensibilities of an  live-action one-off.

Kudos to Kino Lorber for preserving this chunk of pop-culture flotsam, but… content-wise, it’s a little thin, as the main attraction takes up less than an hour of running time. Commentary tracks for the five original episodes beef up the presentation a bit. Besides the two previously-unseen episodes, extras include unaired footage (most notably, a hilarious faux-promo for “Treasure Man.”) There are also two “Merry Christmas” dispatches from a very depressed Santa (no one wants to hear that jolly old elf pleading “pray for me”). The disc’s hidden treasure, however, is “Chowboys,” a 9-minute short about cowboys on the range who contemplate cannibalism while hallucinating from hunger one chilly Christmas Eve. It’s described (sad spoiler ahead) as “the final film from Astron-6.” This is obviously a must-have release for Astron-6 fans; casual viewers might want to see if they can borrow a copy before shelling out a double-sawbuck, however.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Astron-6’s material may not be for everyone, but for those who have come to appreciate their quirky output, this release comes highly recommended!”–Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: THE MIGHTY BOOSH (2003-2007)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Paul King, Steve Bendelack

FEATURING: Julian Barratt, Noel Fielding, Rich Fulcher, Michael Fielding, Dave Brown

PLOT: Throughout its three seasons, we watch the adventures of Howard Moon and Vince Noir who start as zookeepers with musical ambitions, become musicians with musical ambitions, and finish off as shopkeepers with musical ambitions.

WHY WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Exceptions for a movie list, once made, have a danger of proliferating; so it is with heavy heart that I can’t recommend adding this series to the Apocrypha list. That said, its got weirdo merits aplenty: no narrative diversion is too outlandish, and at any moment a song or “crimp” can break out. Skating forever between idiotic and genius, it is unfailingly creative, absurd, and oddly charming.

COMMENTS: On the heels of my northern outing, I decided it was time to hunker down and crash through every episode of the famed cult comedy, “The Mighty Boosh.” I couldn’t resist its invitation at the start of each episode to join the troupe “on a journey through time and space,” and found myself neck-deep in a sitcom that veered recklessly all over the comedy spectrum. I’ll admit that the first few episodes left me both speechless and with a fixed raised eyebrow. Once I got onto the Boosh‘s twitchy wavelength, however, I just couldn’t stop watching, and discovered how quickly ten solid hours of weirdo comedy can whiz by.

Whatever the surrounding nonsense, the focus is always squarely on Howard Moon (Julian Barratt) and Vince Noir (Noel Fielding). The former is a middle aged, mustachioed neurotic whose character exudes constant worry about himself and his surroundings coupled with a paradoxical belief in his own merit and strength (imagine, perhaps, a more charismatic version of Arnold Rimmer from “Red Dwarf”). Vince Noir, whose bubbly mask of idiocy covers a friendly vapidity, is his only friend. Vince is obsessed with fashion to the same degree that Howard is obsessed with his self-image. The second tier characters of Bob Fossil (Rich Fulcher, utterly uninhibited as a bombastic zoo manager), Naboo (Michael Fielding, mysterious—and often stoned—as Howard and Vince’s shaman buddy/landlord), and Bollo (Dave Brown, Naboo’s not-altogether magical “familiar”) are joined from episode to episode by countless oddball guests ( among them).

While the first season is incredibly strange, “The Mighty Boosh” hits peak weirdness in the second season thanks to two episodes: “The Priest & the Beast” and “The Legend of Old Gregg.” In the former, Howard and Vince are in the background, as Naboo relates the story of Rudi and Spider (also played by Barratt and Fielding, respectively), two famed musicians in the Boosh universe. They are a “bongo brother” duo traveling the desert “in search of the new sound.” Rudi is contemplative and mystical, as symbolized by a door in his afro that, upon deep thought, can open up to dispense a relevant item of some sort. Spider is a sex-crazed drummer (like all drummers, apparently), so named because he has “eight of something.” They search for the new sound, sing about their quest for the new sound, and ultimately save a nearby village from the “Betamax Bandit,” a heartless desperado made up entirely of Betamax tape.

In “The Legend of Old Gregg,” the best known episode in the series, Howard and Vince escape an angry mob infuriated by the horrendousness of their latest gig to find themselves in a seaside tavern peopled exclusively by exaggerated fishermen (the house band are all clad in a three-person corded sweater). Howard stays out fishing and captures a merman, who after brief conversation exposes himself and his “mangina” to an unreceptive Howard before dragging him down to his lair for further seduction. Bailey’s Irish Cream, watercolor paintings (including one of Bailey’s “as close as you can get to it without getting your eyes wet”), and a snappy Motown/Funk dance duet ensue as Howard awaits rescue.

This is not typical sitcom fare—and those are only brief descriptions of one-tenth of the series. Each episode necessarily has a musical number in it, and many of them have a bizarre chanting referred to late in the series as “crimping” (described by Julian Barratt as something like “folk rap”). And beginning in the second season, there is the ever present danger of “The Moon” appearing out of the blue for a brief non-sequitur speech that will simultaneously infuriate and delight. Yessir, it’s all here, and all crazy. Whatever it is that Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding have created, it is singular and stupid, distinct and delightful, and mighty, “Mighty Boosh.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…after a few minutes of half-hearted setup, Barratt and Fielding are off, having surreal adventures that involve ancient legends, talking animals, elaborate costumes, and a few snappy musical numbers. Even when a Mighty Boosh episode isn’t fall-down funny, there’s always something happening.” –Noel Murray, The Onion A.V. Club

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: COINCOIN AND THE EXTRA-HUMANS (2018)

Coincoin et les z’inhumains

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Alexia Depret

PLOT: Four years after the events of Li’l Quinquin, Quinquin (now Coincoin) has grown up and joined a far-right political group, while Commandant Van der Weyden investigates a mysterious black tar that is falling from the sky and a plague of doubles showing up in town.

Still from CoinCoin and the Extra-Humans (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: If Li’l Quinquin was worthy of consideration, then his equally odd brother Coincoin must be, too. Too bad we can’t mash Quinquin and Coincoin together into a single seven-plus-hour festival of Gallic strangeness.

COMMENTS: A lot has changed in the Côte D’Opale since we last visited Quinquin; and yet, nothing has really changed. Sure, Quinquin is now a strapping teenager who goes by “Coincoin” (like so much else in this world, the change in nomenclature is left a mystery). His old love interest, Eve, is now into girls. The outsiders are now undocumented Africans living in shantytowns on the outskirts of Calais instead of suburban Muslims. And no one worries about dead bodies found inside cows anymore; they’re more concerned with the black goo that’s falling from the heavens, usually splattering the cops at inconvenient times. But though the case may have changed, the tic-ridden Commandant Van Der Weyden and his foul-toothed assistant Carpentier are still on it. Their cruiser still tilts up on two wheels (in fact, it does so much more often). The townsfolk are still quaintly thoughtless and provincial. And there still is no resolution or logical explanation as to why this quiet French outpost is the locus of so much metaphysical weirdness. Most importantly, the project feels exactly the same: eccentric, tone-shifting, with little surreal jaunts off the beaten path, like Season 1 “” set at an out-of-the-way beach resort.

As for the weird bits: there’s a scene where CoinCoin can’t figure out how to kiss Christ, some blackface, a man attacked by a gull, and “clown” clones, not to mention the bizarre alien invasion (if that’s what it is) and a surprise at the end that I won’t spoil. Few of the comic bits—which stray close to border of anti-comedy—are funny in themselves; they only succeed through a relentless repetition that demonstrates Dumont’s sincere commitment to his style. Repetition is itself often the meta-joke: Carpentier does his “two-wheel” trick so often that his Captain complains it’s getting annoying (then continues to do it for several more episodes); doppelgangers are switched in mid-conversation so that conversations repeat themselves over and over and over. Meanwhile, Coincoin’s own plotline (now clearly secondary to the antics of the gendarmes) is almost entirely a realistic coming-of-age story; the boy is concerned with girls, mischief, and peer pressure, oblivious to what increasingly looks to be a modern Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style crisis until the events of the fourth episode force him to pay attention.

It’s hard to explain why Quinquin/Coincoin‘s blend of low-key absurdism, social awkwardness, grotesquerie, political swipes, and rural drama works; it seems like it shouldn’t. But it captures the Western world’s current mood of ambivalent anxiety as well as anything out there. An apocalypse is coming—maybe—and it’s actually sort of funny—a little.

Although it’s mostly of interest to those who saw the first miniseries, there’s no reason you can’t jump straight into this sequel first if you like.

The four episodes of Coincoin and the Extra-Humans are currently screening as a single long feature at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York City through July 28 and at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston on July 26 only as part of the Boston French Film Festival. Lil Quinquin played Netflix briefly after its release, but is now streaming on the Criterion Channel. That seems like the likely eventual landing spot for Coincoin once its brief theatrical run concludes. We’ll keep you updated.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Dumont hasn’t been a comedy director for very long but it now seems impossible to imagine a world without his endearingly ridiculous sense of humor and his genuine love for his affably weird protagonists. Dumont’s comedies are a gift we were never promised and now they’re something we should never have to live without.”–Scout Tafoya, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

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)