Tag Archives: Art

CAPSULE: THE ADVENTURES OF PICASSO [PICASSOS ÄVENTYR] (1978)

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DIRECTED BY: Tage Danielsson

FEATURING: Gösta Ekman, Hans Alfredson, Margaretha Krook, Lena Olin, Bernard Cribbins, Wilfrid Brambell

PLOT: The life of the legendary Spanish painter, told with a  questionable level of veracity.

Still from The Adventures of Picasso (1978)

COMMENTS: In a few weeks, a motion picture will make its streaming debut purporting to tell the remarkable story of pop music’s crown prince of parody, . Weird promises to cover every step of the master accordionist’s life and, whenever possible, to subvert the proceedings with lies and misdirections. It’s a fitting approach for someone who has built a career out of taking familiar sounds and destroying them from within.

What it won’t be is unprecedented. The grand womb-to-tomb biopic has been assailed before. Its conventions have been savagely parodied. We’ve seen lives thoroughly misappropriated with falsehoods and flights of invention. (And that’s to say nothing of legitimate productions that shred the truth to achieve better storytelling.) It turns out that a leading exemplar of the ridiculous film biography hit screens years earlier, the product of a Swedish comedy duo who wondered what it would be like to make an authoritative biography when you have virtually no knowledge of the subject.

Like a book report by a student who did absolutely none of the reading, this take on the life of Picasso is drenched in flopsweat. Within the first 15 minutes of the movie, the pieces of the Picasso legend are already falling into place: young Pablo has established his bonafides at art school (successfully painting a nude after seeing the model for a split second), relocated to Madrid, adopted his trademark striped shirt and white trousers, and invented cubism. Having burned what few facts they have available, the filmmakers pivot to wildly making stuff up. Did you know that Picasso was gifted with a vial of magical ink by a woman he saved from a pair of foul brigands? Maybe you recall his illustrious contemporaries, who evidently include Ernest Hemingway, Erik Satie, two Toulouse-Lautrecs, Puccini (and his real life Mimi), Vincent van Gogh, and even Rembrandt. And who can forget the real story of how a petty artistic quibble between Churchill and Hitler presaged World War II. (No wonder Picasso would seek refuge in America, despite the notorious Art Prohibition of the Roaring Twenties.) The Adventures of Picasso is the movie equivalent of converting text into Japanese in Google Translate and then back.

One of the film’s most inventive techniques is the choice to dispense with dialogue altogether. Actors speak in grunts and gibberish or spout cursory and irrelevant phrases in pidgin versions of various languages. (A persistent chanteuse sings lyrics that are actually a recipe for a Finnish fish pastry.) Even the headline of the traditional newspaper carrying the word of the outbreak of World War I reads simply “BOOM KRASCH BANG!” Only the narration is necessary to carry the story forward, and you get a different version depending upon your native tongue. (English-speakers like myself are treated to comic actor Bernard Cribbins, in his role as Gertrude Stein.) The filmmakers have thus given themselves an out: don’t understand what’s going on? No worries; you’re not supposed to.

While writers Danielsson and Alfredson will do anything for a joke, they show surprising empathy for the Picasso they’ve created. There’s an extended skit where the onscreen Picasso is forced to do whatever the narrator dictates, and that typifies the notion that Picasso ultimately had no agency, a victim of his own success. His father is a relentless huckster; when his dicey hair tonic instantly produces Picasso’s famous baldness, the old man immediately sells the locks to capitalize on his son’s fame. Throughout the rest of his “career,” dear old dad will be there, making friends with history’s greatest monsters and looking for the quickest way to make a buck. At the end, the great artist is nothing more than an exhibit himself; his home is a theme park and his doves of peace are trinkets to be sold. In this telling, Picasso doesn’t so much die as drop out, leaving our materialistic world behind.

The Adventures of Picasso certainly takes an unusual approach to biography; if you come hoping to learn anything about the creative mind behind “Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon” or “Guernica,” you will surely be disappointed. And even the deeper truth that may be lurking within seems suspect; the real Picasso was far from an innocent and was in full control of his brand. But there’s something almost noble about the notion that if you can’t get it right, then by all means get it completely and utterly wrong. Or, as another great biographical subject once observed, “It doesn’t matter if it’s boiled or fried. Just eat it.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

The Adventures of Picasso‘ is billed as ‘a lunatic comedy,’ and while it does achieve that feeling on a couple of rare occasions, for the most part it’s like a bad dream… The film’s strategy is to make everything as feverishly absurd as it can be…. But too much of it has the ring of desperation. It’s all too frantic for words.” Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Ettin, who called it a “[S]wedish surreal comedy” that ” [I]’m sure you will like.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)        

CAPSULE: GELATERIA (2019)

DIRECTED BY: Arthur Patching, Christian Serritiello

FEATURING: Arthur Patching, Christian Serritiello, Carrie Getman, Tomas Spencer, Daniel Brunet, Simone Spinazze, Joulia Strauss

PLOT: A picaresque tour of a town on a remote island where a man leaves his girlfriend on a train and is scorned by an old childhood companion; an Italian speaker leaves his job addressing party guests in the unfamiliar language to attend an art show where a singer sings of anarchy; a getaway driver meets a UFO watcher at a remote hotel; and an artist travels to a remote island to find out what happened to the paintings she submitted to an art show.

Still from Gelateria (2019)

COMMENTS: We begin with a man standing on a rocky shore as he stares resolutely into the wild, swirling forces of nature. Finally, he screams, unleashing all his inner turmoil into the void. But we can’t hear anything at all. Whether he is unable to give it voice or it cannot be heard above the din, we cannot be sure. But the scream is silent, doomed.

Gelateria says as much in that first minute as it does in the 60 that follow. Playing out like an extended Monty Python episode that isn’t especially interested in being funny, the film bounces from one set piece to another, with one character or another delivering us to the next sketch like an off-kilter La Ronde. Like that opening vignette, much will be said but very little will be heard.

In some respects, a movie like this is review-proof. If the premise is interesting enough, it can hold your interest for several minutes until it has to bounce to the next one. Consider a scene on a yacht where a wealthy man has paid top dollar for someone to come and speak words that no one can understand. It’s a quirky situation, and the confusion of the speaker is an entertaining contrast with the blissful ignorance of the party guests. When that starts to lag, we can spend a few moments observing how no one even seems to be able to party properly, and we even get one final burst of absurdity when the host sneaks off to scarf down a hot dog. Once the speaker makes his exit, we’ve just about wrung all we can out of this scenario; it’s the perfect time to move on.

And Gelateria, like its namesake, has a variety of flavors for us to sample. Haunted: an early scene where a man contemplates his failing relationship, represented by the camera’s inability to keep his girlfriend in focus. Shocking: a singer exhorts her audience to revolt against the system, then begins shooting members of the uncooperative crowd. Giddily silly: a policeman offers to help a desperate visitor, but only in exchange for her attendance at a play he’s in. The subsequent play is wonderfully unhinged, as it appears to be falling apart right before our very eyes. (“Of course you will eat it,” an actress says of the pasta that is accumulating on the table. “It’s a play. They expect reality.”)

There’s not much reality here, of course, so what are we actually getting from it? It doesn’t have to be about anything, of course, but there’s a preponderance of evidence to suggest that the whole movie is a meditation on artists and their relationships with their patrons and audiences. Nearly everyone is either performing in some way or putting their heart on display for all to see, and the responses – from feigned appreciation to apathy to outright hostility – are not soul-enriching. If the metaphor-for-art explanation appeals to you, I encourage you to peruse David Finkelstein’s more detailed exegesis of the theme, but if that is the right interpretation, then it’s hard not to view the whole enterprise as an exercise in navel-gazing.

You see, possibly the most delightful interlude is a fun little cartoon (animated by Tiago Araújo) which introduces the character we will follow for the remainder of the film: an aspiring painter whose work has vanished as the result of what seems to be a scam. She seems a pitiable sort, but when we meet her in the flesh, she is played alternately by both writers/directors/editors/producers/cinematographers Patching and Seritiello in an inoffensive drag turn that seems to have more to do with giving credence to the closing title card “This film was inspired by true events” than anything. They are the artist, you see. But that means this whole amusing, well-shot motion picture is just a way of telling us how put upon they are as artists. And that kind of ouroboros is clever, but it’s not very fulfilling to watch. It ends up being a hollow pursuit.

All of which is to say: Gelateria is an enjoyable little piece of alt-comedy. It has a strong farcical tone, the premises hit their marks and get out promptly, and everyone really commits to the bit. But the underlying thread of self-pity subtly undercuts the modest successes, making a sweet taste turn sour. Tell it to the wind.

Gelateria is available on Vimeo for the reasonable price of $2 to rent or $5 to own.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Gelateria is a beautifully shot, weird, and truly hell-ride of a film… With personal camerawork seeming to slide in and between the realms of reality and a dreamlike world, you’ll quickly find yourself trapped.” Jordaine Givens, Film Threat

 

CAPSULE: THE STENDHAL SYNDROME (1996)

 La sindrome di Stendhal

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Marco Leonardi, Paolo Bonacelli,

PLOT: A female detective investigating a serial rapist finds herself stalked by her quarry, while intermittently experiencing hallucinations when she looks at works of fine art.

Still from The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)

COMMENTS: A little over halfway through The Stendhal Syndrome, Anna announces (slight spoiler) that she’s overcome the Stendhal Syndrome. She’s not kidding; she doesn’t hallucinate again (although her psychological struggles are far from over). Argento had used the Syndrome, a fanciful and dubious affliction in which viewers supposedly swoon into a fugue state when confronted with great works of art, as an excuse to stage a handful of hallucination sequences which, it turns out, were inessential to the plot.

The fact that syndrome supplying both the film’s title and its high concept would basically serve as a red herring indicates either a certain sloppiness, or an admirable disregard for conventional plotting by an auteur who’s always favored atmosphere over storytelling, depending on your point-of-view. Combined with the script’s predictable final twist and a number of superfluous scenes, I lean towards the confused execution opinion. There are other missteps, such as some clumsy and unnecessary CGI (pills down a throat, a bullet passing through a head), which comes across as the director playing with a new toy rather than as an element enhancing the story. All of which is not to say that The Stendhal Syndrome is a failure. It borders on the psychologically profound: Anna’s shifting identities and a recurring theme of gender confusion reflect a sympathetic, believable, and engaging view of a rape victim’s trauma. As always, Argento sniffs out poetic camera shots, e.g. Anna’s reflection trembling in a blood-red glass of wine. And the movie’s opening—a dialogue-free seven minute sequence of Anna wandering through Florence’s Uffizi, scored to Ennio Morricone’s deceptively simple, increasingly ominous theme, and ending with the heroine passing through the canvas surface of Bruegel’s “The Fall of Icarus,” then the diving under its painted water, where she eventually locks lips with a bulbous fish—is one of this director’s best standalone sequences. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie can’t live up to the mysterious promise here. The Stendhal Syndrome not quite the resurrection of the classic giallo form it might have been, but Argento fans will find enough spooky psychodrama to savor to make it worth a watch.

It’s awfully creepy to reflect on Dario directing his daughter Asia through the brutal rape scenes (though to be fair, she was only cast after a couple of other actresses, Bridget Fonda and , withdrew from the project). Asia’s acting here gets mixed reviews, but she has a classic beauty in three incarnations—regular Anna, tomboy Anna, and glamorous blonde Anna—and indulges in enough B-movie histrionics to carry the film. She positively shines compared to the rest of the blandly European cast. The English dubbing is atrocious, almost perfunctory like in a bottom-shelf vintage 1970s giallo, and the Italian soundtrack is recommended.

Blue Underground’s 2022 Blu-ray release is identical to their 2017 three disc limited edition, minus the DVD. Originally, this set shipped in a substandard video transfer; that issue was rectified and should not be a problem anymore. This version restores an additional two minutes of dialogue that were missing from previous U.S. releases.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…as fans of the Italian horror director may have guessed, [the syndrome is] little more than a suitably arcane jumping-off point for another of the filmmaker’s bizarre examinations of madness, obsession, and bloodshed.”–Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle (1999 US release)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PHASE IV (1974)

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DIRECTED BY: Saul Bass

FEATURING: Nigel Davenport, Michael Murphy, Lynne Frederick

PLOT: Following a mysterious cosmic event, ants in a remote corner of Arizona are acting strangely, and a pair of scientists are out to determine if the insects’ behavior has implications for the future of humanity.

Still from Phase IV (1974)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Given the parts and tools needed to make a monster movie, a master of Hollywood imagery chooses instead to make a kind of video essay envisioning humans and ants becoming one in a sort of neurological singularity. Surprise of surprises, no one really got it, but it lingers in the memory as an example of genre filmmaking providing a platform for genuinely idiosyncratic visions. The film, like its director, is one of a kind.

COMMENTS: Saul Bass is the strangest kind of movie legend. While everyone else was trying to earn fame as an actor or an auteur, or the more adventurous hoped to become a household name as a writer or a composer, Bass carved out a lasting legacy as a master of marketing and design. His graphic skills are still revered as some of the finest and most memorable film posters and title sequences (the latter in partnership with his wife, Elaine) ever devised for the medium. He built a second career for himself as the creator of some uncommonly memorable corporate logos, and his distinctive style even earned him his own Google Doodle. His skill at capturing a movie’s mood soon carried over into the filmic storytelling itself: what could have been a simple end credit sequence to Around the World in Eighty Days became a six-minute animated epic retelling of the tale audiences had just sat through; some accounts (including that of Bass himself) give him credit for crafting Psycho’s iconic shower sequence; and his own dabblings in short filmmaking earned him three Oscar nominations, claiming the short documentary prize for “Why Man Creates.”

All this is to say, when you sit down to watch the sole feature film that Bass ever helmed, you should know not to expect anything traditional or commonplace. Yet audiences and executives alike seem to have been completely unprepared for the kind of movie that Bass intended to make. The subject matter suggests a B-movie with cheap thrills, a la Empire of the Ants or Kingdom of the Spiders. To think that Saul Bass would get control of a film and make something  uninspired is to fail to read the man at all.

For one thing, it’s probably the most delicately paced nature-on-a-rampage movie ever made. Like a metaphysical take on The Andromeda Strain, the film pits methodical scientists against a mysterious phenomenon they are just beginning to understand, and we see their step-by-step process as they test out pesticides and make halting first steps at communication. It feels real, if not suspenseful; the closest thing we have to a ticking clock is the ever-present threat of the government withdrawing a funding. It’s a thriller for tenured university professors.

Bass and screenwriter Mayo Simon are far less interested in the human side of the tale. With the scientists played by the classically arrogant Davenport and the determinedly milquetoast Murphy, and Frederick’s ingenue mainly present to facilitate the ending and to provide the geography for an entertainingly creepy ant’s-eye tour, there’s not much to latch onto. It’s not as though you’re rooting for them to die, but you’re definitely not invested in whether or not the scientists live. Especially when you’ve got the convincingly creepy world of the ants to reckon with. From their 2001-style monolithic creations on the Arizona plains (Arizona being played, oddly enough, by Kenya) to their elaborate funeral ceremonies, the bugs are where it’s at. The close-up photography of Ken Middleham (who cut his teeth capturing similar up-close insect footage for The Hellstrom Chronicle) is absorbing and brings character and nuance to the ant populace, in a way that no present-day CGI take on the material could ever manage.

Adding Phase IV to our list might have been a no-brainer, had the producers not chosen to cut a four-minute chunk out of the movie’s finale. The released cut leaves you with an enticing uncertainty, as the surviving humans are left to contemplate their unknown future. But that’s nothing compared to the original vision (recently rediscovered and offered on a French Blu-Ray release and as an iTunes extra), in which the transcendental implications of the coming conjunction of life on Earth are explored and the true meaning of the film’s title is revealed. With Dalí-esque landscapes, an unsettling soundscape created by Stomu Yamashta, and a cacophonous mix of solarization, overlaid imagery, and off-kilter angles, it almost manages to capture the unseeable vision of a biosphere transformed. In some respects, it’s the greatest Saul Bass opening sequence ever: a prelude to the evolution of the human race.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Think of it as the 2001: A Space Odyssey of treacherous ant movies… it’s a gorgeous and strange film to look at, accentuated by Brian Gascoigne’s sparse and eerie electronic score.” – Jim Knipfel, Den of Geek

(This movie was nominated for review by Morgan. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: QUEEN OF PARADIS (2020)

DIRECTED BY: Carl Lindstrom

FEATURING: Reine Paradis

PLOT: After a sold-out exhibit of her “Jungle” photography series, Reine Paradis goes around the United States to find the perfect locations for her follow-up, “Midnight.”

COMMENTS: When I experience art, I try to do so with a degree of ignorance–I typically neither know, nor care to know, anything about the artist. I eschew “director’s commentaries” for films because I want to see the work, and experience the story, on its own. I found Queen of Paradis, a documentary about an artist making art, somewhat awkward going—and knew half an hour in where it was going, and how it was going there.

We follow Reine Paradis, a Surrealist photographic artist, and her husband (who handily fills the roles of driver, prop repairman, photographer, and all around supportive swell guy) across the country as she puts lime plexi-plastic on display, making unreal, still-life vignettes from a real, photographed setup. The tone is typical talking heads-style documentary interspersed with intimate scenes (socially and emotionally intimate, that is)—including more “breaking-and-entering” segments than I was expecting, as Reine and hubby sneak into a salt mine for a white “mountain”top shoot, or onto a fenced-off billboard for a neon-lime-green spaghetti dinner “restaurant” shoot. It is a credit (I presume to director Lindstrom) that the tone never quite veers into satirical—any other movie with the line, ‘Okay! I have the fish!’ shouted by a French woman standing beside a train track would doubtless smack of parody.

But an interesting topic does not an interesting movie make. I also experienced this with the documentary about The Residents. While Queen of Paradis is competent, adequately assembled, and informative about its subject matter, that only hits a documentary’s minimum requirements. (And upon a little reflection, it seems unfair to be so dismissive of a documentary that does those three things; oh well.) Still, all and all, I found Reine’s imagery fascinating and playful and that, ultimately, is the point. Queen of Paradis could be dismissed as an advertisement for the artist, but I don’t begrudge her that. It worked on me.

LINKS OF INTEREST:

reine paradis – The titular artist’s homepage, with plenty of images and information about her, her work, and this movie

Surreal-Chic – In-depth article about Paradis’ first photo-set, “Jungle”

“Interview” by Plastik Magazine – This brief (1:18 minutes) segment conveniently condenses Reine’s process, and results, into a bite-sized chunk

“step into reine paradis’ surrealist adventure land” – Interview and article with the i-D people (a fashion culture, fanzine outfit) featuring many of the photographs from the “Midnight” shoot

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I’m not exactly a massive fan of art documentaries. I prefer watching more of the pop-culture and modern-day artists…the ones with a quirky edge over the traditional. Paradis definitely fits the quirky side of art. Queen of Paradis is an excellent art film.”–Alan Ng, Film Threat (contemporaneous)