Tag Archives: Autobiographical

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CHAPPAQUA (1966)

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DIRECTED BY: Conrad Rooks

FEATURING: Conrad Rooks, Jean-Louis Barrault, William S. Burroughs, Paula Pritchett

PLOT: A wealthy young American travels to Europe to receive treatment for his alcohol and drug addiction, fighting his urges, reflecting on his hedonistic past, and dreaming of more tranquil times.

Still from Chappaqua (1966)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: With a sometimes-poetic, sometimes-pretentious look at the travails of drug addiction and a fervent dedication to nonlinear storytelling, Chappaqua is messy but unusually sure of itself. There’s little doubt that first-time filmmaker Rooks got exactly the movie he wanted, and that movie is a surreal anti-narrative that by turns puzzles, annoys, and astonishes.

COMMENTS: The opening crawl is essentially the hero’s confession: in an effort to combat the alcoholism that began at the age of 14, our protagonist—Russsel Harwick, the alter ego of writer-director Rooks—turned to an impressive number of alternatives, including marijuana, hashish, cocaine, heroin, peyote, psilocybin and LSD. It’s the peyote that offers hope of breaking the cycle of rotating addiction, as a nightmare convinces him he’s hit rock bottom and leads him to seek a cure. Enjoy this moment; it’s the last time in Chappaqua where anyone makes an effort to explain what’s going on.

Chappaqua is Conrad Rooks’ barely disguised autobiographical account of his own struggles with drugs and drink, and he is bracingly frank about the depths to which he fell. He is selfish, rude, prone to breaking rules, and pathetic in pursuit of his next fix. We get to see what it’s like to operate in a drug-induced fog through such tools as an unsteady handheld camera, comical shifts in tone and perspective, and even a shocking black and white posterized vision of Manhattan. As a visualist, Rooks is rich with ideas. On the other hand, Russel is kind of unbearable to be around. (When he tussles with Burroughs in the writer’s cameo as an intake counselor, I half-hoped that Burroughs might pull a page out of his own history and shoot him.)

And yes, it’s that William S. Burroughs. Rooks hung out in New York with a number of future leading lights of the counterculture, and has said that he made Chappaqua after efforts to bring Naked Lunch to the screen fell through. But Burroughs is still a big part of this film even aside from his cameo, as Rooks used the author’s cut-up technique, deliberately editing out of order and throwing scenes in at random places, sometimes overlaid atop other scenes.

How Conrad Rooks came to be in the company of the likes of Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg (a fellow cameo beneficiary, annoying crowds by the Central Park reservoir by chanting and playing a harmonium) is a major component of any discussion of Chappaqua. An Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CHAPPAQUA (1966)

37*. TEENAGE TUPELO (1995)

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“Everything Revealed! Nothing Explained!”–tagline for Teenage Tupelo

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: D’Lana Tunnell, Hugh Brooks, Wanda Wilson

PLOT: Voluptuous D’Lana Fargo is knocked up by local Tupelo singer Johnny Tu-Note. Her mother sets up an adoption, and Johnny wants her to get rid of the baby. D’Lana falls in with a group of “Man Haters” who are fans of stripper/sexploitation filmmaker Topsy Turvy, who is the spitting image of D’Lana.

Still from Teenage Tupelo (1995)

BACKGROUND:

  • Teenage Tupelo was the first (and only) original production released by Something Weird video. It was released directly to VHS but never made the transition to DVD, going out of print and becoming unavailable for decades.
  • Produced by legendary exploitationeer David Friedman, a longtime collaborator of who also produced such oddities as The Acid Eaters (1968) and Ilsa, She Wolf of the S.S. (1975).
  • The film was shot on Super-8 for $12,000.
  • McCarthy’s adoptive parents appear as extras in the diner; their younger alter-egos are played by actors.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Almost certainly, you will remember the birth-of-a-baby scene (borrowed from the 1948 roadshow shocker Because of Eve). Even if you’ve seen a live birth before, it’s still shocking to see this sight casually shuffled into a narrative film context—and, accompanied by a tinkly music box rendition of “Frère Jacques,” it comes across as decidedly unwholesome. Viewer beware!

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Battered Johnny Tu-Note serenades vixen; chainsaw devil tattooist

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Teenage Tupelo plays like director McCarthy took Something Weird Video’s entire vintage VHS catalog, ran it through a woodchipper, and used the resulting pulp to sculpt his own phantasmagorical autobiography. It’s utterly unique, history’s first postmodern grindhouse film.

Trailer for the soundtrack release of Teenage Tupelo

COMMENTS: Not too many exploitation films open with an epigraph—even if it does come from a fortune cookie—but Teenage Continue reading 37*. TEENAGE TUPELO (1995)

19*. MIRROR (1975)

Zerkalo

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“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)

CAPSULE: TOMMASO (2019)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Cristina Chiriac

PLOT: An aging American director living in Rome goes to AA meetings and struggles to relate to his much younger Moldavian wife.

Still from Tommaso (2019)

COMMENTS: It may be inevitable that as Abel Ferrara has aged and sobered up, he’s started to make self-consciously serious movies aimed at art houses, as opposed to the wild and exploitative hits like Ms. 45 (1981) and Bad Lieutenant (1992) that originally brought him cult fame. While his movies once graced grindhouses, prior to Tommaso Ferrara was last seen at the Venice Film Festival pushing a prestige biopic about fellow bad-boy director .

Now, he’s back with a navel-gazing domestic drama that’s heavy on scenes of walking though Roman streets, Italian lessons, squabbling spouses, and Alcoholics Anonymous testimonials. There is no doubt that Tommaso is Ferrara: an ex-alcoholic movie director living in Rome with a much younger foreign wife and daughter (who are played by Ferrara’s real-life wife and daughter). We also see him working on a movie screenplay (which, from the Eskimos and bears, one guesses is destined to become the soon-to-be-released Siberia). Ferrara wisely chooses the great Willem Dafoe as his stand-in: even when he’s cheating, or thinking of cheating, or having grandiose messianic fantasies, Dafoe is weighty and likable. He finds the legitimate human confusion and suffering that makes us empathize with every indulgence. (Although he’s awesome as always here, I still wish Dafoe would take fewer roles playing elderly filmmakers who can’t distinguish fantasy from reality and more roles playing foul-mouthed and flatulent 19th century lighthouse keepers).

The numerous fantasy segments scattered throughout this self-searching autobiographical character study give it the esque credibility required in the subgenre. Some of them nakedly illustrate Tommaso’s insecurities. He imagines his child in danger, his wife unfaithful. Others are more inscrutable: a Kafkaesque detention dream, or Tommaso literally pulling out his own heart while sitting around a squatters’ campfire. The finale is imaginary and catalysimic. But no matter their subject, the hallucinations do not seriously impede on the movie’s basic plotlessnesses, its focus on marital discord and sarcastic self-reflection.

Tommaso’s anxiety about whether his wife will seek comfort in the arms of someone closer to her own age, and his struggle with his own controlling nature—even with yoga and breathing exercises, he’s awfully high-strung and quick to jealous anger—form the essence of his internal conflict. Although his wife Nikki can occasionally seem a little bit immature (“I want to do what I want, when I want…”), Tommaso consistently comes off much worse. At one point, he spends his entire turn at an AA meeting complaining about his wife; the next speaker empathizes with him, but also offers some wisdom: “this program teaches me to stick to my side of the street… whenever I’m pointing a finger, I’ve got to look at myself.” The message is lost on Tommaso, however, who continues his bossy behavior, and flirts with other women while imagining Nikki is cheating on him.

This unflattering portrayal, of course, is Ferrara’s way of working out his own issues and anxieties on film—a public confessional that is as brave as it is uncomfortable for the viewer. After watching Tomasso, I feel like I know Ferrara intimately—more intimately than I should know a stranger.  On the other hand, I keep thinking about an AA speech where Tommaso describes those long-ago times when he directed indie movies by day and smoked crack and got pounded in the face by jealous boyfriends by night—and kept thinking how I wanted to see that memoir, instead of the one I was currently watching.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Much of the film feels as though it is going through the movements of a surrealist film, though lacking the dedication. It wants to be surrealist, giving a message in the symbolism of the film, though teasing audiences with a cohesive narrative that never truly arrives.”–Stephanie Archer, Film Inquiry (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SCARLET DIVA (2000)

DIRECTED BY: Asia Argento

FEATURING: Asia Argento, Jean Shepherd, Joe Coleman

PLOT: A hot young Italian actress has dirty sex, encounters Hollywood scumbags, and does too much Special K while looking for true love.

Still from Scarlet Diva (2000)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This semi-hallucinatory semi-autobiography, the directorial debut of ‘s actress daughter, is merely a curiosity, though frequently an outlandish and entertaining one. It’s made with all the taste and subtlety you would expect from a woman with an angel tattooed over her crotch.

COMMENTS: Scarlet Diva is an experimental art movie that wouldn’t have been out of place on Cinemax After Dark. Asia Argento, the writer-director, asks Asia Argento, the actress, to do full frontal nudity, multiple sex scenes, a lesbian scene, and a couple of attempted-rape scenes. To freak out in front of a mirror while tripping on ketamine. To smoke, drink, and get into a mosh pit while pregnant. To pathetically pine for a pretty boy rock singer who doesn’t have time for her. To imagine herself as the Virgin Mary. Asia Argento, trooper that she is, eagerly complies with all these requests.

Scarlet Diva is timely because, among its many unsavory anecdotes, it includes a fictionalized version of the actress’ sexual abuse at the hands of now disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein. (In this version, she gets away, and he chases her down a hotel corridor as the camera focuses on his hairy ass). Yet that episode is only one of the many chaotic tales in this rambling confessional that plays like a trashy tell-all bestseller brought to life by an ambitious film student who hadn’t quite decided whether she wants to direct for the arthouse or for the late night cable market. So you get a hog-tied nude roommate, childhood flashbacks, a puking scene, dream sequences, a drug trip complete with an out-of-body experience, a religious bestiality icon, aerobics in leopard-skin panties, screaming into the void, an encounter with a horny heroin-addicted genius, Asia nude shaving her underarms while Nina Simone sings “Wild is the Wind,” and so on. And exchanges like, “That’s the first time I’ve ever made love.” “Don’t tell me you’re a virgin?” “No, I’m a whore.”

It’s pretentious, sure, but in the most enjoyable way: honest, over-the-top, passionately personal, and never boring. Scarlet Diva is not, by most definitions, great filmmaking. And yet, there’s an excellent chance you’ll find yourself entertained by it, in a guilty pleasure way.  And you’ll also feel legitimate pity and affection for Argento, despite the occasional clumsiness with which she makes the case for her own debasement. It’s better than a so-bad-it’s-weird movie, but it’s in the same general region, in the sense that it’s as often interesting for things it does wrong as for things it does right.

Film Movement Classics treats Diva like a Criterion-worthy masterpiece. There are tons of supplements, including an 8-minute “making of” featurette; an archival Asia Argento interview;  multiple versions of the trailer, including an 8-minute promo; and an odd piece called “Eye of the Cyclops” where Joe Coleman talks about his role in the film while showing us his titular conceptual art piece. It’s capped off by a very personal, even uncomfortable commentary track where Argento almost breaks into tears at times, curses Harvey Weinstein, and refuses to discuss certain painful scenes in detail.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It is, by conventional standards, a fairly terrible movie — crudely shot on digital video, indifferently acted (in three languages) and chaotically written (by Ms. Argento) — but it is also weirdly fascinating, a ready-made Eurotrash cult object.”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (U.S. debut)