Tag Archives: Ambiguous

CAPSULE: HOUR OF THE WOLF [VARGTIMMEN] (1968)

DIRECTED BY: Ingmar Bergman

FEATURING: Max von Sydow,

PLOT: An artist is haunted by memories of his past. While isolated on an island with his pregnant wife, his demons catch up to him. Madness and delusion creep deeper into his mind as a gang of mysterious island dwellers intervene in the couple’s life. A secret, scandalous affair surfaces, and when supernatural forces intervene, the couple’s relationship and sanity is strained.

Still from Hour of the Wolf [Vargtimmen] (1968)
WHY IT SHOULD’T MAKE THE LIST: This is a tough film to decipher. The ending is certainly weird, but the lead-up to that point is too ponderous and ambiguous. Bergman is a master and his lone foray into the horror genre is an excellent piece of film-making; his artistry in delving into the lower depths of the human psyche is better established in his other well-known masterpieces, however.

COMMENTS: The older I get, the more I appreciate Ingmar Bergman films. There is something about Swedish movies that encapsulates human existence like no other country. Scenes are left dangling on a thread waiting to snap. The slow, or still, images can verge on monotony, but are usually necessary to convey the pathos of the souls here. Sometimes watching scenes slowly transpire is the best way to fully grasp how life can unravel around us. A scene in this film actually plays out for an entire minute with the main character staring at his watch to express how even sixty seconds can feel like an eternity. Time can sometimes lay heavy on a burdened mind. What I’m trying to suggest here is that Bergman is amazing at capturing exactly what it means to be human. We sin and regret, yet we still long for penance and understanding. Even when our existence feels loathsome, it sure is nice to have someone else around to share in our misery. Modern Swedish director Roy Andersson (You, The Living) knows this as well and, like Bergman, his films are wrought with longing stares of sadness.  Both Swedes capture these depressing moments and bring them alive with precise balance and well thought out execution.  Even dialogue is matter-of-fact.  Nothing said in their films seems to be unimportant or drivel; it’s Continue reading CAPSULE: HOUR OF THE WOLF [VARGTIMMEN] (1968)

66. THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP [La science des rêves] (2006)

Mrs. Miroux: “So, what did you think?”

Stephanie: “I adore it!”

Mrs. Miroux: “Really? I’ve always found it rather strange.”

Stephanie: “That’s what’s good.”

DIRECTED BY: Michel Gondry

FEATURING: Gael García Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg,

PLOT: Stephane is a young artist and inventor from Mexico, a man who has always had trouble distinguishing dreams from waking life; he is lured to Paris by his mother with the promise of a “creative” job that turns out to be a position as a typesetter at  a company that makes nudie calendars. He slowly falls in love with his next door neighbor Stephanie, who is also a creative type, an amateur composer and toy designer. Their developing relationship becomes complicated and eventually melancholy because Stephane can’t tell if Stephanie returns his affections; whenever he meets her, he can’t even be sure if it’s in a dream or reality.

Still from The Science of Sleep (2006)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Science of Sleep was Michel Gondry’s feature fiction followup to 2004’s Certified Weird Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  It was Gondry’s first feature screenplay.
  • Gondry stated that the character of Stephane was about 80% based on himself (the other 20% coming from Gael García Bernal’s interpretation of the character). Many of the dreams depicted in the film came from Gondry’s own dreams; the scene where Stephane has giant, cartoon-like hands came from a recurring nightmare the director had as a child. In the commentary on the DVD Gondry also implies that the romantic trauma Stephane goes through in the script was inspired by a real life unrequited love. Gondry also filmed the picture in the house he grew up in a s a child.
  • The director said in an interview that he got some of the inspiration for the film’s look from Communist propaganda films aimed at children.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The two would-be lovers on a gray felt horse with button eyes in a white boat with a forest inside, sailing off on a cellophane sea.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Science of Sleep is nearly a straight shot of surrealism masquerading as a romantic comedy, under the cover of dreams. In this movie, it’s the reality-sequences that interrupt and inform the dream narrative, not the other way around.


Original trailer for The Science of Sleep

COMMENTS: In the very first scene of The Science of Sleep, Stephane’s subconscious,  Continue reading 66. THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP [La science des rêves] (2006)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Werner Herzog

FEATURING: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes,

PLOT: While investigating the slaughter of an immigrant family, a pill-popping and coke-

Still from Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

sniffing New Orleans cop’s penchant for gambling and for rolling his escort girlfriend’s clients gets him into deep trouble with his department and with dangerous men; to save his life, clear his name, and crack the case, he must pull off several double crosses while strung out and sleep deprived.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Watched with a doggedly literal mind, this version of Bad Lieutenant could almost be seen as a straightforward thriller/police procedural, but most who check out this flick will come away with the nagging feeling that there’s something exceptionally strange afoot in NOLA these days.  Less than a handful of hallucinations dog our drug-soaked antihero through the port, but the visions that do appear pack one hell of  a wallop.  Cage’s jittery, over-the-top performance and the enigmatic, dreamlike ending Herzog supplies notch two more points in the “weird” column.

COMMENTS: In 1992 underground auteur Abel Ferrara made a notorious movie about a corrupt New York City cop who shoots heroin, smokes crack, molests teenage girls, shakes down criminals for bribes, and tries to solve a case involving a raped nun while hallucinating and dodging a bookie he owes an unpayable debt.  Bad Lieutenant was an overwrought, magnificent Christian parable that sought to demonstrate God’s infinite capacity for forgiveness by presenting a character that audiences couldn’t forgive.

In 2009 renowned German auteur Werned Herzog made a movie about a corrupt New Orleans cop who snorts heroin, smokes crack, molests young women over the age of 21, rolls johns for drugs and money, and tries to solve a case involving a murdered family while hallucinating and dodging a mobster he owes an unpayable debt.  Herzog defiantly claimed never to have heard of Ferrara or the first Bad Lieutenant movie, but screenwriter William M. Finkelstein notably kept his mouth shut.

It’s a good thing that Herzog, who apparently wanted to title the film Port of Call New Orleans, Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS (2009)

CAPSULE: INCEPTION (2010)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Nolan

FEATURING: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Dileep Rao

PLOT: Cobb (DiCaprio), a mercenary with a unique skill set—he breaks into targets’ subconsciouses as they dream in order to steal business secrets—assembles a team to enter the mind of an heir to a billionaire’s fortune; but will his preoccupation with his lost wife, which is poisoning his own subconscious, destroy the mission?

Still from Inception (2010)

WILL IT MAKE THE LIST?: There’s a rule around here: no movie officially makes the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time until it’s released on DVD, so that we can pore over individual scenes at our leisure. That said, Inception is probably on the borderline. That’s not to suggest it’s a bad movie; in fact, Inception may well be the best movie released so far in 2010, and has surely already nailed down an Oscar nomination and a spot on most critics 2010 top 10 lists. The question is, is it weird? By Hollywood standards, a psychologically thriller about professional dream infiltrators is damn weird; so out there, in fact, that only someone with the clout of a Christopher Nolan could get it made and released as a summer blockbuster. (Though to be honest, the subject matter is not as weird, to a studio executive, as is the concept of purposefully releasing an movie with a script that’s so complicated and tricky it throws viewers into a state of total bafflement within the first ten minutes). Nolan’s latest is pop-weird; it creates just a little bit of pleasant confusion that viewers trust will be substantially resolved by the end. It’s not a movie that will risk leaving us stranded in a psychological limbo. Nolan’s dreamscapes are surprisingly based in realism, carefully constructed from cinematically familiar parts—mainly old heist movies, film noirs and spy flicks—rather than from abstruse symbols, Jungian archetypes, and monsters from the id. With its focus on action and self-contained narrative rather than mysticism and mystery, Inception has more in common with crowd-pleasers like The Matrix or Total Recall than it does with 2001: A Space Odyssey or Stalker. (Although, if we were forced to select the weirdest movie of 2010 in July, we’d be forced to go with this one; thankfully we have five more months of movies to select from).

COMMENTS:  I wondered going into Inception: if I was making a thriller about dreams, one Continue reading CAPSULE: INCEPTION (2010)

58. DILLINGER IS DEAD (1969)

Dillinger e Morto

Dillinger Is Dead throws narrative, psychological, and symbolic common sense out the window… the film’s refusal of clear-cut logic, its contradictory symbols, and its moral ambiguity open it to endless interpretation.”–Michael Joshua Rowin, from the notes to the Criterion Collection edition of Dillinger is Dead

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Annie Girardot, Anita Pallenberg

PLOT: Glauco designs gas-masks by day.  One night, he returns to the apartment he shares with his wife and live-in maid and, while searching for ingredients for dinner, discovers a gun wrapped in newspaper in his pantry.  He spends an evening puttering around the house, making dinner, watching home movies, playing with his various toys, disassembling and reassembling the gun, painting it, then using the weapon in a senseless final act.

Still from Dillinger Is Dead (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • John Dillinger was a bank robber in the 1930s who became both Public Enemy #1 and a folk hero.
  • Ferreri barely directed Piccoli, giving him only simple blocking instructions and dialogue and allowing the actor to improvise the rest of the performance.
  • This is the first of six films Ferreri and Piccoli made together.
  • Model Anita Pallenberg may be best known for her romantic involvements with two members of the Rolling Stones (first Brian Jones, and later Keith Richards), but she has had small roles in a couple of weird movies besides this one: Barbarella (1968) and Performance (1970).
  • The movie was filmed in the apartment of Italian pop-artist Mario Schifano, and some of the painters works (most prominently, “Futurismo Rivisitato“) can be seen in the background.
  • The observations that the young worker makes to Glauco in the prologue are all paraphrases from philosopher Herbert Marcuse’s essay One-Dimensional Man, a critique of then-contemporary consumerism, mass media and industrialism.  Marhola Dargis of the New York Times believes that the entire movie is an attempt to give cinematic form to Marcuse’s ideas.
  • After it’s initial release, Dillinger is Dead nearly disappeared.  Variety‘s 1999 version of the “Portable Movie Guide” didn’t mention it among their 8700 reviews, Halliwell never heard of it, and Pauline Kael didn’t encounter it in “5001 Nights at the Movies.”  It was seldom screened and never appeared on home video until a 2006 revival led to the film being virtually rediscovered, culminating in a 2010 release by the Criterion Collection.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The gun that may have belonged to John Dillinger, which fascinates the protagonist.  Especially after he paints it bright red and carefully paints white polka dots on it.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Dillinger is Dead is a disconnected, absurdist parable where

Clip from Dillinger is Dead

nothing seems to be happening, and when something happens, it doesn’t make sense. It’s very much a product of its time—the anarchic, experimental late 1960s—yet the world it portrays still feels oddly, and awfully, familiar.

COMMENTS: Dillinger is Dead doesn’t take leave of reality until its very last moments, Continue reading 58. DILLINGER IS DEAD (1969)

CAPSULE: THE WHITE RIBBON [DAS WEISSE BAND: EINE DEUTSCHE KINDERGESCHICHTE] (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Michael Haneke

FEATURING: Christian Friedel, Burghart Klaußner, Leonie Benesch, Maria-Victoria Dragus, Leonard Proxauf

PLOT: A doctor’s horse is tripped by a wire strung between two trees, and soon

Still from The White Ribbon (Das weiss band) (2009)

other unexplained “accidents” start happening around a German village on the eve of WWI.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  I wouldn’t have even considered covering this fairly conventional film in this sacred space devoted to weirdness, except that as I was leaving the theater, I heard an old man ask the old woman beside him, “Wasn’t that the strangest movie you ever saw?”  The old woman agreed. My initial reaction was sadness at the thought that they both had reached an advanced state of decrepitude without having ever witnessed the miracle of a truly strange film.  My second thought was, I have to get out there and nip this rumor in the bud.

COMMENTS: As a historical drama, a novelistic examination of small town immorality, The White Ribbon is superb.  It immerses us in the life of a quiet, one-bicycle German hamlet on the eve of World War I, where order is harshly enforced in public but cruelty and hypocrisy are the rule behind closed doors.  The story begins by evoking a mystery—who strung the invisible steel wire that tripped the doctor’s horse?—then moves on to explore various village subplots involving characters from every strata of society.  Among others, there’s the humane schoolteacher who romances a shy nanny; the Baron, who employs half the village and acts as if feudalism is still in fashion; a Farmer and the rebellious son who blames the Baron for his mother’s death; the Doctor, an eminent man hiding shameful secrets; the Midwife, who lives with the Doctor since his wife dies and cares for her mentally retarded son; and most significantly the Pastor, who is obsessed with enforcing purity among his children, binding his son’s arms at night to help him resist the temptation to touch himself and tying white ribbons on the elder children to remind them of innocence.  And there are the children themselves, whose eerily blank faces and frustratingly proper responses to interrogations mask unknown motives.  Led by creepy and unflappable Maria-Victoria Dragus, a gang of tykes seem to be present at the periphery of all the tragic accidents that start popping up around the village.  The question of whether the kids are just curious spectators drawn to the hubub in a quiet town, or if they have some deeper involvement in the plague of catastrophes, is the mystery that Haneke leaves unsolved.  But the real unsolved mystery may be why the director chose to structure his story as an unsolved mystery.  When the tale focuses on exploring of moral hypocrisy, exposing the domestic cruelty of upstanding pillars of the community, the film is first-rate drama; there are excellent, tense scenes where a man callously dumps his mistress and parents inflict sadistic punishments on their children for minor infractions.  Haneke apparently did not feel that this searing drama was enough to grant his film Palme d’Or-type gravitas, and so we have the ambiguous mystery arbitrarily piled on top.  Not only is the plot obscure, but the purpose of employing an obscure plot is obscure.

Perhaps it’s because Haneke’s thesis isn’t as meaty as it seems.  The reminders that these wan, detached and abused children will be the generation that grows up to embrace Nazism are not subtle.  But if Haneke’s trying to say that a morally rigid, patriarchal society set the ground for the rise of Nazism… well, that’s a small part of the puzzle.  But the same types of societies existed all over the Western world.  Change a few details—replace the feudal Baron with a capitalist robber baron—and the story could just as easily be set in small town America in the 1910s.  What’s specifically German about this story that supposedly helps to explain the rise of Nazism (as the film’s narrator suggests in his opening lines)?  If, on the other hand, Haneke isn’t blaming a particular social order for nurturing fascism, but trying to say something universal about human societies and their capacity for institutional evil, the point gets a bit lost by locating the story in such an incredibly specific historical time and place.  The movie ends up perched uncomfortably between ambiguity and a definite argument, between a universal message and a historical one.  Maybe these unresolved tensions help explain why The White Ribbon, with its impeccable acting and classic production, feels thematically awkward.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Our narrator, well into old age, tells us that he is revisiting the strange events in the village to ‘clarify things that happened in our country’ afterward.  But ‘The White Ribbon’ does the opposite, mystifying the historical phenomenon it purports to investigate… ‘The White Ribbon’ is a whodunit that offers a philosophically and aesthetically unsatisfying answer..”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

49. A SERIOUS MAN (2009)

NOTE: A Serious Man has been promoted onto the List of 366 Best Weird Movies of all time after initially being placed in the “Borderline Weird” category.  For reference,  you can read the original borderline weird entry here.

“Even though you can’t figure anything out, you will be responsible for it on the midterm.”–dream dialogue from A Serious Man

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

FEATURING: Michael Stubargh, Aaron Wolff, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Fyvush Finkel

PLOT: A Serious Man opens in the indeterminate past with a Jewish couple entertaining a man who may or may not be a dybbuk (ghost) on a snowy night somewhere in Eastern Europe. In 1967, in suburban Minnesota, a Jewish physics professor suffers from an escalating series of problems including a failing marriage, bratty kids, students willing to do anything for a passing grade, financial troubles, and a ne’er-do-well, mildly insane brother. Seeking advice on a life that seems to be spinning out of control, he visits three rabbis, each of whom is less helpful than the last.

Still from A Serious Man (2009)

BACKGROUND:

  • Though the film is not autobiographical, Joel and Ethan Coen grew up in suburban Minnesota roughly at the time the events of A Serious Man take place.
  • The core idea for the movie originated when the Coens considered making a short film about a boy who attends his bar mitzvah stoned. As the story expanded from that scene, the idea was originally to make the father and son’s stories of equal weight, but as the script evolved the story of the elder Gopnik assumed center stage.
  • The prologue is not an actual Jewish folktale. The Coens searched for an authentic legend to use but finally decided to create their own.
  • The movie makes extensive reference to quantum physics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, theories of modern physics which suggest that there are limitations on our ability to know basic reality.
  • The Coens’ script for A Serious Man was nominated for a Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay Oscar. The film won “Best Screenplay” or equivalent awards from the Boston Society of Film Critics, National Board of Review, and National Society of Film Critics.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The very last shot, which I can’t reveal here.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Superficially, A Serious Man is only mildly weird. There are a few dream sequences and multiple nonsense parables, but unlike the Coens’ definitely weird Barton Fink, this story of a suburban Jewish man beset by an improbably mounting set of real life woes contains no surrealistic fireworks (although there is a conspicuous surrealistic pillow).  On the other hand, A Serious Man has a skeletal undercurrent of ambiguity and disturbance running through it like a bone cancer; it feels weird at its core.  With a head-scratching prologue and epilogue bracketing a central fable about a goy’s teeth, the thoughtful and frequently brilliant A Serious Man earns its place on the List by mining the mysteries at the basis of existence.

Official trailer for A Serious Man

COMMENTS: A Serious Man is a retelling of that most fascinating parable in the Old Continue reading 49. A SERIOUS MAN (2009)