Tag Archives: Arthouse

CAPSULE: DAMNATION (1988)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Béla Tarr

FEATURING: Székely B. Miklós, Vali Kerekes, Gyula Pauer

PLOT: Karrer pines for a married nightclub singer and passes along a smuggling opportunity to her husband.

COMMENTS: The subdued tragedy, utter pointlessness, and active ennui that oozes from this beautifully shot film is probably Damnation‘s goal. From its opening shot of coal bins slowly traveling along a suspended wire track to its closing shot of a mound of earth littered with barbed-wire-looking roots, there’s a great heap of scant going on, with the vivaciousness provided only by the (comparatively) seductive and jaunty film score. It is arguable there is beauty to be found within Damnation; it is inarguable that the viewer is provided countless minutes to keep an eye out for it.

Karrer (Székely B. Miklós) is introduced by his favorite past-time: silently observing full bins of coal traveling off in one direction and empty bins traveling in the opposite. He stares out his window; then we stare at him as he stares into a mirror, shaving. He has an awkward encounter with a woman through a chained gap in a door; she claims to have had enough of him, he claims he should be let inside. A jolly bartender (Gyula Pauer, the only ray of light in the overcast cast) chats amiably with Karrer about the slow destruction of body and soul before getting sidetracked from his chuckling existentialism in order to address the actual topic at hand: a parcel needs picking up, and the retriever’s fee is “20%”. (“20% of what?”, some may ask—it matters as much as Hitchcock’s suitcase full of incandescent distraction.) The woman from behind the door is a nightclub singer. Her husband has had enough of Karrer. So what’s the sporting thing to do? Offer the singer’s husband the job and the reward.

The camerawork somehow sludges into fascinating. Under the direction of Gábor Medvigy, the lens practically skulks its way through the film, slinking languidly left to right across sets as (in)action takes place in the fore-, mid-, or back-ground. It idles over unlikely figures, such as the bar’s accordionist noodling through an ambiguous melody; or the waiter snoozing on a chair; or a film extra sitting in absolute stillness amidst rhythmically pacing dancers. This circle of revelers—if one could be so generous as to call them that—is a metaphor, encapsulating Tarr’s obsessive message of cyclical tedium and its inevitable, meaningless disintegration.

Despite my intentions, I appear to be suggesting that something profound occurs in Damnation. Perhaps there is, but the question as to whether this is a story worth telling remains. Toward the end, something of an expectable twist limps from the narrative, and on the heels of that subdued reveal comes what may be the film’s most famous sequence: Karrer’s psychological descent into caninity. But Tarr should take note, as his bartender puts it to protagonist, that “[y]our problem is you see things from your perspective.” A biting societal commentary loses its edge if left to dull for two monotonous hours.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“. Tarr’s fascination with their ennui is profound, and while his statement about them isn’t lacking in visual power and philosophical heft, it’s also questionable whether it’s the strongest statement an artist of his caliber can make.” -Jeremiah Kipp, Slant Magazine

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE ELEMENT OF CRIME (1984)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Michael Elphick, Meme Lai, Esmond Knight, Jerold Wells

PLOT: Under hypnosis, a detective recalls a case where he tried to catch a serial killer by retracing his steps using investigatory techniques pioneered by his mentor in his book “The Element of Crime.”

Still from The Element of Crime (1984)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The Element of Crime tells a (literally) hypnotic story soaked in doom and moral decay, with the film looking like it’s lit by the smoldering embers of an immolated Europe.

COMMENTS: Although he had made a 57-minute student film previously, The Element of Crime is Lars von Trier’s first true feature and his first commercial work. Though the atmosphere is narcotic, the work shows the energy of youth—the bold choice of shooting in an almost entirely orange palette being the most obvious example of the youthful preference for style over substance. The film does not show many hints of the shock provocateur von Trier would later become, nor is his edge of Jacobean cruelty fully honed yet, but those qualities are not missed in this dreamy mood piece.

Von Trier leans on noirish motifs, putting his own strange spin on them: a monochrome palette (jaundiced instead of shadowy), voiceover narration (sometimes supplied by the hypnotist), rain (constant downpours of almost parodic quantities), a femme fatale, and moral slippage (our detective’s mentor, Osborne, has clearly gone mad, and we justifiably fear that our hero may really become the killer he emulates). Other concerns are new: as the detective becomes more obsessed with the algorithmic process of retracing the steps of the predator, the police establishment grows increasingly fascist—suspects are beaten, and the police shave their heads to resemble their leader, Kramer, who prefers issuing edicts through a bullhorn. The rise of brute force, as opposed to the failed intellectualism of Osborne’s system?

The hero, Fisher, splashes through a world of constant rain and puddles. He is submerged; in his memory, in his subconscious, and in the procedure of entering a psychotic killer’s mindset, a procedure that threatens to pull him under. It’s no wonder that Fisher’s last words in the film are “you can wake me up now. Are you there?” It’s the plea of a man drowning in his own mind, the fished who no longer believes himself the fisher.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…here’s a chance to catch a master of bizarre lighting and film stock experimentation at an early point in his career… Unsettling and odd, it’s the perfect film for a dreary, rainy day.”–Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle

(This movie was nominated for review by future 366 contributor Caleb Moss, who said the story “seems to be a mix between Naked Lunch and Brazil.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: AND THE SHIP SAILS ON (1983)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Barbara Jefford

PLOT: Loaded with distinguished guests, a transatlantic luxury liner sets off at the dawn of WWI to bury the ashes of a deceased opera diva on the island where she was born.

Still from And the Ships Sails On (1983)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: It may not be top-tier Fellini, but middle-tier Fellini still sails past most of the competition—at least, when the director sticks to his odder impulses and remembers to pack a pachyderm in his hold.

COMMENTS: As befits the film’s 1914 setting, And the Ship Sails On starts out as a silent film, showing a crowd of onlookers watching celebrities arriving to board a luxury liner, complete with slapstick pratfalls for the amusement of the children. The only soundtrack is the quiet whirring of a projector. Then, sparse background noises slowly creep into the sound mix, followed by the introduction of a piano score and sparse formal dialogue. The black and white fades into color, and in about ten minutes we move from what could have been vintage newsreel footage into a full-fledged late Fellini movie.

Besides the revered ashes of incomparable soprano Edmea Tetua, various musical dignitaries and well-wishers board the funeral ship, including Ildebranda, a diva whose insecurities are exposed by the praise lavished on a deceased woman whose fame she will never attain; and a trio of elderly choirmasters; an English aristocrat and his insatiable wife; a portly, baby-faced Prussian Grand Duke and his scheming retinue; a homosexual; a mysterious young beauty; a rhinoceros; and a dozen-plus others. They are all introduced and commented on by Orlando, a journalist who’s documenting the voyage and who often speaks directly to the audience. Later on, rafts of Serbian refugees fleeing the onset of World War I will board to swell the onboard throng. Along the way, the passengers will play a wineglass symphonetta, stage an impromptu vocal competition in the boiler room, attend a seance, and (temporarily) face down an Austro-Hungarian battleship (or, at least, a Hasbro model of a warship).

The Fellini film And the Ship Sails On most resembles is Amarcord, in its choice to focus on a community instead of a central character and on a collection of vignettes instead of a single story. Unlike the classic of the previous decade, this one is not anchored by the director’s nostalgia and love for his subject. The destination is fixed—the passengers will eventually end up spreading Edmea Tetua’s ashes into the Mediterranean—but seldom has a journey seemed so aimless; it’s a road trip movie without a road. It may be Fellini’s last “great” movie, and at the very least his last epic; but in many ways, it feels like the work of a young artist, playing promiscuously with different styles and ideas like he’s just trying things out, still figuring out what works. Sets and psychologies both change from realistic and detailed to artificial caricatures, and Fellini drops in postmodern distancing bits, like a character who remarks, “How marvelous! It looks fake!” while gazing at an obvious matte sunset. Maybe the maestro is just being playful as old age approaches; this is a movie whose takeaway point, after all, is praise for the salubrious properties of rhino milk.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“At its best moments ‘And the Ship Sails On’ floats serenely above the realities of ordinary movies – not to deny the validity of those realities but to expand the imagination.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MEMORIA (2021)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:

PLOT: A Scottish woman traveling in Colombia thinks she’s losing her mind when she intermittently hears a mysterious thumping sound.

Still from Memoria (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Memoria is a deliberately-paced accumulation of subtly odd incidents, with one big weird reveal.

COMMENTS: Memoria has a lot on its mind, but Weerasethakul’s philosophy, if not his film’s purpose, is summed up in a discussion in a doctor’s office (a conversation that Pfizer might not appreciate). Jessica has come to see a physician in a small Amazonian town seeking relief from her increasing auditory hallucinations and concomitant insomnia. She hints about pills. Tranquilizers, the non-prescribing physician advises, “will make you lose empathy. You will no longer be moved by the beauty of this world. Or the sadness of this world. Do you know Salvador Dalí? Salvador Dalí understood the beauty of this world.”

With all of the potential themes weaving their way through this movie, and through all of Weerasethakul’s oeuvre, the simple directive of not overlooking the beauty of this world is a constant. As with other minimalist filmmakers, Weerasethakul pauses on scenes like a shot of a woman silhouetted in the silvery night, or an quietly teeming Amazonian jungle seen from a balcony, long enough so that you can absorb all the detail, all the beauty. Though she seeks a brief relief from the pressures of her world with Xanax, Jessica is not alien to this insight: on an errand at a music studio, she stops in a doorway to listen to a spirited jam session from a jazz quartet. Not many movies take time out in the middle of the story for a brief and totally superfluous recital—but for Weerasethakul, beauty pops up unexpectedly, and we must take time to savor it when it arrives.

It should be noted that much of the beauty he arranges for us is strange beauty, the beauty of the inexplicable and the supernatural. The movie’s second scene is a symphony arranged for car alarms, whose various honks and sirens, set off by some poltergeist, perform an aleatory rhythmic concert. Another early scene involves Jessica talking to sound engineer Hernán, who takes time out of his schedule to help her recreate the sound she’s hearing in her head in the studio, working from a library of movie effects, sculpting waveforms to create a “more earthy,” “rounder” sound at Jessica’s direction. This is an unusual scenario, to say the least. From this meeting Hernán takes a strong and peculiar interest in the older woman—that is, until he suddenly disappears from the story. Then, oddly enough, in a remote village Jessica meets a fish-scaler and mystic who just happens to also be named Hernán. This second Hernán understands the language of howler monkeys, does not dream, and holds the answer to the source of the thumping sound Jessica has been hearing… a rather astounding answer, it turns out.

Swinton is reserved here. She is quietly lost in the world, never raising her voice, reacting with widening eyes and tightening lips to the alarming noises echoing in her head. She is the perfect  Weerasethakul heroine, reacting just enough to these beautiful mysteries to guide us towards absorbing and savoring them. Memoria is a wispy piece of poetry that rewards concentration, but doesn’t demand it. If your mind drifts, you won’t miss anything. You see what is there to be seen, and hear what is there to be heard.

The screener copy I received on DVD was preceded by an short apologia from Weerasethakul and Swinton reminding us to “respect that this film was intended for a very, very much larger screen than the one you’re probably viewing it on now, and to keep that sacrosanct.” I didn’t get it at the time–I thought it was an unnecessary plea to not pirate the film, or simply to take into account that this was a sub-optimal presentation. But it turns out that these critics’ screener copies are reluctantly granted exceptions to the film’s rule: Weerasethakul intends for the movie to be shown only in theaters, with no home video or streaming release. (I imagine they will relent on that restriction after a few years pass, but then again, never has.) In the U.S., it begins its release on December 26, traveling from town to town, one engagement at a time. We’ll post a schedule when we can. If you want to see Memoria, you’ll have to make a point to seek it out; it won’t come to you.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…watching Memoria is like sleepwalking through an unfamiliar territory. It’s like a lucid dream; you are not quite sure if you are awake or dreaming… Memoria, with languid long takes and tranquil setting, is a deeply contemplative film that offers you to experience a dreamscape in a place strange yet familiar, where you can embrace the mysteries of life.”–Dustin Chang, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

CAPSULE: NEVER GONNA SNOW AGAIN (2020)

Sniegu juz nigdy nie bedzie

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Malgorzata Szumowska, Michal Englert

FEATURING: Alec Utgoff, Maja Ostaszewska, Agata Kulesza, Weronika Rosati, Katarzyna Figura, Lukasz Simlat, Krzysztof Czeczot, Andrzej Chyra

PLOT: Residents of a gated community in Poland believe a mysterious Ukrainian masseur has special powers.

Still from Never Gonna Snow Again (2020)

COMMENTS: Mystery masseur Zhenia was born in Pripyat, the closest town to Chernobyl, seven years before the reactor melted down and exploded. That event was in 1986, which means that Zhenia was born in 1979. Stalker was released in 1979.

Of course, those dates could be coincidences, but its worth mentioning that later Never Gonna Snow Again will directly quote a scene from Stalker, and the ghost of (alongside Pier Paolo Pasolini, by way of Teorema) haunts the production. This movie is thick with allusions, feints, and mysterious possible connections that never quite cohere. The premise is simple enough: Zhenia begins peddling his massage services to residents of a wealthy Polish gated community. Everyone feels incredible and energized after a session, and the neighborhood comes to believe his hands have extraordinary healing powers. It also turns out that he is a gifted amateur hypnotist whose techniques can give their psyches the equivalent of a deep tissue massage. He becomes a central figure in the lives of a number of the families living in this tract of luxurious but nearly identical suburban homes, most notably an alcoholic woman, a man fighting cancer, an aging bohemian and her drug-chemist son, a woman obsessed with her three dogs, and an ex-soldier with a nasty temper.

This setup gives Never Gonna Snow Again ample space to explore many possible avenues, from the social to the personal to the existential. It’s a movie that begs for an allegorical interpretation, but I’m not sure it plays fair with the audience on that count. The story leaves a lot of loose thematic ends, with no hints on how to correctly tie them up. Is it a parable about immigrants? A social satire of the new Polish bourgeoisie? An environmental warning? A Christ allegory? Is the story actually about Zhenia’s childhood? Why the Stalker references? Why do the children believe it will never snow again? Why do the neighbors feel better after meeting with Zhenia, even though their lives don’t materially improve? What’s the meaning of Zhenia’s relationship with dogs? Why does Zhenia speak fluent Vietnamese?

That’s just a small sample of the movie’s unanswered questions. Ambiguity is a tricky thing. Wielded well, it can produce powerful intellectual and emotional effects. But a little bit can go a long way, and loose ends are easier to deal with if there is at least one strong central idea to latch onto. When nothing links up, you are left only to appreciate the aesthetics; a hit-or-miss affair that depends on your subjective preferences. Never Gonna Snow Again impressed art-house critics, which is why it has a 94% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes and will be Poland’s submission to this year’s Oscars. Many praised Alec Utgoff‘s performance, but I found him pleasantly bland, lacking the supernatural presence brought to Teorema (a tall order, admittedly, but almost a necessary element for a fable like this to work). The cinematography and sound design are outstanding, but they’re only pieces of the puzzle. You need to be attuned to slow cinema and the subtler shades of weirdness to fall for this one.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Desire and delirium in Eastern Europe, with an undertow of eco-anxiety, make for a bizarre hybrid, somewhere between Twin Peaks and Pasolini’s Theorem…heads all the way into the territory of surreal satire to eerie and intriguing effect.”–Jonathan Romney, Screen Daily (festival review)

CAPSULE: LAMB (2021)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Valdimar Jóhannsson

FEATURING: , Hilmir Snær Guðnason, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson

PLOT: A childless couple living on a remote farm in Iceland become attached to a newborn lamb.

Still from Lamb (2021)

COMMENTS: Debuting director Valdimar Jóhannsson has been adamant in interviews that Lamb is not a horror movie. While that may not be strictly accurate—Lamb abuts the supernatural, relies on ominous music cues and a bit of shocking violence, and nurtures a sense of unease throughout—the lack of intent to horrify is an important consideration to get your expectations in order.

Anyone going in expecting a stately A24 horror outing a la St. Maud (2021), The Lighthouse (2019), or Hereditary (2018) will likely grow impatient in the first forty-five minutes as the movie languorously spends its time following the slow rhythms of farm life. Maria and Ingvar, all alone except for a dog, a cat, and their livestock, spend long days grazing their sheep, preparing and eating meals (including lamb chops), and servicing their temperamental tractor. The only event that breaks up the idyllic monotony is the unexpected birth of a new lamb. After pulling the babe out of its mother, Maria gets that motherly look in her eyes. The couple take the lamb inside their home and care for the newborn like a favored pet, lavishing as much affection and attention on it as they would on an infant. The cute-as-a-button critter is usually lovingly wrapped in swaddling clothes, and it’s only when we get a brief glimpse of its lower extremities that anything resembling horror starts to take root.

Things perk up a bit after the overly-long introduction, helped by the arrival of Ingvar’s ne’er-do-well brother, who crashes at the farm and, like the audience, looks askance at the couple’s unnatural attachment to the animal. Things still proceed relatively slowly, but the viewer’s interest is held by dreamy visuals of the verdant Icelandic valley and the strangely expressive lamb (formed from a variety of techniques, including CGI composting and puppetry, into an aberration that’s simultaneously ridiculous and uncanny). The narrative is thin, but the metaphorical implications are broad; the story is driven by a likable couple’s need for something to love. (Coincidentally, displaced and delusional parental love is also a key feature of the recent Titane). It falls just short of earning a general “” tag, but for those who enjoy slow but offbeat art-house movies that focus as much on gorgeous scenery as horrific visions, Lamb may serve to fill an empty space inside of you.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a kind of WTF object of fascination… Even the (excellent) trailer from boutique studio A24 can’t find a way to entirely hide the movie’s hyper-bizarre premise.”–Taylor Antrim, Vogue (contemporaneous)

*19. MIRROR (1975)

Zerkalo

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

“For Proust the concept of time is more important than time itself. For Russians that’s not an issue. We Russians have to plead our case against time. With authors who wrote prose based on childhood memories, like Tolstoy, Garshin, and many others, it’s always an attempt to atone for the past, always a form of repentance.” –Andrei Tarkovsky

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Margarita Terekhova, Ignat Daniltsev, Filipp Yankovskiy, voices of Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy and Arseny Tarkovsky

PLOT: Alexei’s life story is told through jumbled flashbacks and dreams that mainly involve his mother. Abandoned by his father, he spent his youth in a remote cabin with his mother and siblings. He grows up to have a child of his own, but his relationship with the boy’s mother is only cordial, and he’s grown apart from his own mother.

Still from Mirror [Zerkalo] (1975)

BACKGROUND:

  • Originally conceiving the film as a memoir about his own childhood memories of WWII, but gradually adding in elements from his later life, Tarkovsky began work on this story as early as 1964.
  • The poetry heard in the film is written and read by Arseny Tarkovsky, Andrei’s father. Andrei’s mother appears as herself in the film.
  • Tarkovsky reportedly made 32 edits of the film, complaining that none of them worked, before settling on this as the definitive version.
  • The Soviet authorities refused to allow Mirror to screen at Cannes.
  • Mirror ranked #19 in Sight & Sound‘s Critics’ Poll and #9 in the Director’s Poll in 2012.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Maria floating in a dream while a dove flutters above her.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Apparition history lesson; levitating mom

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Mirror is an intensely personal, extremely diffused meditation on the meaning of life from one of cinema’s greatest artists. Although insanely difficult, many cinephiles find it intensely moving as an accumulation of individual images that flow like finely crafted verses of surrealistic poetry.


Restoration trailer for Mirror [Zerkalo]

COMMENTS: If you enjoy being confused, jump into Mirror with no Continue reading *19. MIRROR (1975)