Tag Archives: Black and White

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SHE IS CONANN (2023)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Claire Duburcq, Christa Théret, Sandra Parfait, , Nathalie Richard,

PLOT: Waking in the afterlife, Conann the barbarian recalls various stages of her life, and her relationship with the dog-faced demon who guides her destiny.

Still from She Is Conann (2023)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: She Is Conann lives up to its high weird premise—six gender-flipped incarnations of pulp hero Conan(n) the Barbarian—and then some. At this point, it seems likely that anything Mandico sets his hand to will merit candidacy.

COMMENTS: Bertand Mandico loves women. He cast women in all the male roles for The Wild Boys, then set his sophomore feature After Blue on an all-female planet, and now creates a distaff version of Robert E. Howard’s pulp warrior. There are a tiny number roles in Conann; the only major one is played by a female (and at least one female character is played by a male). Mandico also could be accused of having (or exploiting) a lesbian fetish, although it seems the main reason his women have sex with other women is because there aren’t many men around. But there isn’t much sex in Conann (although there is some graphic kissing). Mandico’s casting of actresses in typically male roles has become his auteurial signature, analogous to the non-acting that populated ‘ early movies. The feminine skew is simply part of his worldview.

Conann is essentially an anthology film, a fragmented hero’s journey, with each individual incarnation of the barbarian capable of standing alone: most kill the previous decade’s Conann, directly or indirectly, before embarking on their own story. The first two Conanns inhabit what is basically a high fantasy world, though one where the all-female barbarian tribes wear modified gorilla costumes with wicked nipple hooks. But the story expands after that, seeing Conann take a job as a contemporary stuntwoman, then a fascist officer, and then finally as a post-apocalyptic patroness of the arts. Conann’s character changes—you could argue she becomes increasingly barbaric—but what really ties everything together is Elina Löwensohn‘s demonic Rainier, who strides through the film nudging an obscure prophecy along, frequently taking flash photographs of Conann’s exploits for posterity. Her dog mask is surprisingly effective, leaving room for her eyes to hint at some sinister intelligence, but muzzling her overall expressiveness so that he/she remains mysterious.

The movie plays out entirely on indoor theatrical sets—mist-shrouded barbarian wildernesses, a sleazy urban snake pit where a wall of Conann’s apartment hangs in the air unfinished, a tin-foil-lined Hell. Shot mostly in black and white, it occasionally shifts to soft, faded color. There is an unusual amount of squirm-inducing (though black and white) gore, and more than one example of the ultimate act of barbarity, cannibalism. These elements distance the film from the tasteful art-house circuit, while the experimental plot and portentous dialogue (“You’ve killed Europe! You can’t do that!”) alienates the average genre audience member. In his “incoherent” manner, Mandico discombobulates the viewer between masculine and feminine, monochrome and color, melodrama and farce, art and trash. For most, his technique is off-putting; for us, it’s invigorating,

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The lo-fi production design is often wondrous, the midnight-movie vibe is fetching, but the film is ultimately probably too much of a good/weird thing to sustain its running time — although, for the French writer-director’s fans, such excess is the key to his success.”–Tim Grierson, Screen Daily (festival screening)

She Is Conann
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IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: MICKEY ONE (1965)

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DIRECTED BY: Arthur Penn

FEATURING: Warren Beatty, , Hurd Hatfield, Teddy Hart, Franchot Tone

PLOT: A small-time comedian in Detroit runs afoul of the mob and skips town, but remains drawn to the stage—and his longing for the spotlight finds him risking unwanted attention from his pursuers.

Still from mickey one (1965)

COMMENTS: A turning point in the annals of American cinema came when Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn teamed up to apply the iconoclastic stylings of the movement to a classic crime story of a protagonist on the run from a relentless pursuer. That legendary collaboration, of course, is Bonnie and Clyde. Which makes it interesting to discover that landmark film actually represents a second bite at the apple. Before Bonnie and Clyde could run, Mickey One had to crawl.

Ostensibly about a comic on the run from the mob, Mickey One is deeply uninterested in the details of its plot. (Beatty is never told explicitly what he’s done wrong, and his attempts to buy his way out of his troubles are not so much rejected as ignored.) Instead, we open with a montage of Beatty’s high-flying comedian living the high life, and then immediately descend into full-blown paranoia. He sets fire to all his identification, rips the satin piping off his tuxedo pants, grabs a seat in hobo first-class on the next train out of town, and quickly submerges himself in a series of the lowest-level jobs he can find, assuming the name that gives the film its title. 

At this point, Mickey One seems to be a story of a confident man forced to become weak but unable to pull it off. His fear is genuine; he immediately dashes out of a restaurant the moment he hears it might have mob connections, and he regards anyone who tries to interact with him with disgust and anger. And yet, watching his fellow hacks at the mic, he can’t deny the call of the limelight, and so he tries to walk the line between satisfying his need to perform and desperately trying to avoid sending up a signal flare to his pursuers. Trying to balance these contrary impulses is destroying him, and that’s the character study we’re here for. Beatty is all jittery energy and barely contained rage; he never really demonstrates any actual comic ability (a complaint Beatty lodged throughout the production), but he’s got the loose rhythms and the nervous energy of James Dean or young Paul Newman, never sitting still and chewing on his words like gum. He’s all exposed wiring.

But there’s a turning point when the film suddenly becomes about something else. In a tense sequence, Mickey is maneuvered into auditioning for an unseen impresario, a scratchy voice barking out orders from behind the harshest spotlight ever aimed at a stage. Mickey is utterly terrified that whoever it is in the darkness will end him permanently, but everyone else—his girlfriend, his agent, a persistent booker—all seem equally terrified of their fate if he doesn’t perform. And that’s when it starts to feel like Mickey One is an allegory. We’ve been treated to metaphor throughout the film. Car crushers devour tons of metal on the outskirts of town. The booking agent (played by Hatfield, who I can only describe as a poor man’s James Olson) has an office that’s entirely white and seemingly decorated exclusively in glass. Benevolent societies sing at street corners about the coming judgment day, while a street artist makes enormous mechanical constructions that are destroyed by the authorities at the merest hint of a malfunction. And then there are the voices, speaking to Mickey from behind blinding lights and through faceless cameras. It all hints at meaning something bigger, but this is the moment when Beatty seems to be dueling with nothing less than God itself. Small wonder that he would run at the first opportunity.

Mickey One feels like an ancestor to any number of future Warren Beatty showcases: the overconfidence of Shampoo, the raw paranoia of The Parallax View, the collision of crime and entertainment in Bugsy. And that’s no small accomplishment, to be a rough draft of a style of filmmaking and a type of character study that will be accomplished more successfully down the line. But it ends up being more of an augury than a film that stands on its own. In that sense, the film is very much like its hero in the final scene: eager to put on a show, but exposed to the elements and fearful of the reception that is destined to come.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“With its surrealistic, Felliniesque presence, ‘Mickey One’ is a stunning piece.”–Peter Stack, San Francisco Chronicle (1995 revival)

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

CAPSULE: PITFALL (1962)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Hisashi Igawa, Sumie Sasaki, Kunie Tanaka

PLOT: A miner in search for work is led to a ghost town where he’ll become embroiled in a plot involving manipulation, trade unions, and doppelgangers.

Pitfall (1962)

COMMENTS: Pitfall was the first of a series of collaborations between Hiroshi Teshigahara (director), author Kobo Abe (screenwriter), and Toru Takemitsu (composer); the trio would later produce works like The Woman in the Dunes and The Face of Another. Although an interesting piece on its own, Pitfall feels more like a prelude to greater works to come.

The beginning of the film establishes a sense of mystery and intrigue, as well as looming menace and disquiet (to which Takemitsu’s experimental score proves indispensable). Our main character is a miner traveling with his son in search of a job; he receives a map and instructions to go to a certain town where work awaits him. Upon arrival, the place is revealed to be practically deserted, save for a woman living in a house on its outer edges. After a brief interaction with her, the miner finds himself pursued by a figure in a white suit who eventually stabs him to death.

The Kafkaesque setup (and tone) only paves the way for further strangeness. A few scenes later the miner returns as a befuddled ghost helplessly wandering around the town, unable to interact with the living but trying to uncover the reason for his assassination. The remainder of the film maintains this dynamic: an unfolding drama in the realm of the living, with commentary of ghosts who can do nothing but passively observe.

Even before being reduced to a ghost, the main character is already caught in a web of mysterious causes and effects, moved by an ineffable logic not unlike the inscrutable bureaucratic machinations of  The Trial. Once the plot turns its focus on the investigation of the miner’s murder, the drama thickens (along with the confusion and weirdness), and stretches to a conspiracy involving the leaders of separate factions of a trade union.

More so than in the other films by the trio, the political dimension is particularly evident in Pitfall. The well-dressed figure in white, a symbol of the upper class or even capital itself, orchestrates the events like a demiurge, leading the working class to destruction. They persist only as powerless ghosts who can only witness their own oppression, and comment on it without ever being heard. This is but one of the levels of analysis, and we should not ignore the aura of alienation that the film communicates on a purely existential level.

For a first excursion, Teshigahara’s direction is surprisingly assured. As is usually the case with early efforts by masters, the seeds of what he would go on to accomplish are fully on display in Pitfall. Even if the story does not play out as elegantly and concisely as future offerings by the same team, the film is an assured recommendation to anyone who has enjoyed them.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a classic ‘first film,’ full of restless energy and expressionistic visuals. It’s doggedly odd, but thoroughly involving.”–Noel Murray, AV Club (Criterion DVD box set)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: THE SPIRIT (2008)

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DIRECTED BY: Frank Miller

FEATURING: Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johansson, Sarah Paulson, , Jaime King, Dan Lauria, Stana Katic

PLOT: When the villainous Octopus terrorizes Central City in pursuit of an ancient elixir that will give him godlike powers, The Spirit–heroic guardian of the city–is there to foil his plans.

Still from The Spirit (2008)

COMMENTS: In the opening scenes of The Spirit, the central character delivers a monologue about his mission as he vaults through the city, a black silhouette swinging and somersaulting off the tops of the buildings, with only a pair of titanium white-soled Chuck Taylors and a rippling vermilion necktie to distinguish him. Here is that monologue in full:

“My city. She’s always there for me. Every lonely night, she’s there for me. She’s not some tarted-up fraud, all dressed up like a piece of jailbait. No, she’s an old city, old and proud of her every pock and crack and wrinkle. She’s my sweetheart, my plaything. She doesn’t hide what she is, what she’s made of: sweat, muscle, blood of generations. She sleeps, after midnight and until dawn, only shadows move in the silence. (checks his watch) Damn, I’ve got no time for this. My city screams! She needs me. She is my love. She is my life. And I am her spirit.”

This is but the first of at least half-a-dozen similar monologues scattered throughout the film, because writer/director Frank Miller wants to emulate the narration boxes found in the comic books that are his primary medium. This is not an unworthy goal, but the fact is that those words play better on the page than they do said aloud during a moment of action. And while it’s certainly possible that there’s an actor out there who could pull off reciting dialogue like this, it poses a tremendous challenge, considering that the prose might be best described as “too purple for Prince.” 

Suffice to say, future “Suit” Gabriel Macht is not the person to overcome the limitations of such dialogue. His every effort is labored, trying and failing to weave in elements as disparate as Superman’s moral purity, Batman’s righteous vengeance, Philip Marlowe’s world-weariness, and even a little bit of Han Solo’s roguish charm. But in fairness, with so many styles to play, Macht has the hardest job. The well-pedigreed performers surrounding him only have one style to ape, although they must contend with the same stilted dialogue. Consider Samuel L. Jackson, who is given leave to go full maniacal-laughter bad guy but isn’t given anything to be particularly evil about. (There’s some lip service paid to something about blood found on the Golden Fleece conferring godhood, but far more time is lavished on his role in The Spirit’s origin story, which honestly makes very little sense.) Miller’s screenplay provides little context for the rivalry between Spirit and Octopus, so we’re mainly riding on our goodwill toward Jackson doing his thing, lending some comedy to what would otherwise be gratuitously baroque.   

This problem is particularly acute for the ensemble of actresses whom Miller prizes for their beauty, and gives just enough characterization to get them off his back. Paulson is the stalwart and sexless love interest, Mendes is voluptuous and obsessed with jewels (the genuinely charming Seychelle Gabriel fares better as Mendes’ teenaged past), Vega is all tease and violence, and Katic provides gum-smacking 40s patois. And then there’s Johansson, whose presence here is baffling. She hints at a mercenary soul in a world of true believers, but mainly seems to be here exclusively so Miller can clothe her and Jackson in Nazi uniforms for no reason whatsoever. Characters don’t just lack an arc; they barely even bend.

Miller seems to have drawn the wrong conclusions from his earlier outing, Sin City, where co-director Robert Rodriguez adhered religiously to the stark contrasts and sparse coloring of Miller’s original book. Miller holds no such reverence for his forebears, trading the vibrant and varied colors of Will Eisner for his own tinted monochrome and applying the same grittification that made his name in the Batman re-think “The Dark Knight Returns.” It feels like a bad match. The result is sometimes visually intriguing, but never compelling as a story.

The Spirit is finally a vanity project, Miller using his new-found access to moviemaking as a platform for his style. But while he bends film to his needs, he hasn’t let the demands of the medium bend him at all. So determined to make a movie look like one of his comic books, he’s made one where the story is convoluted, the characters are two-dimensional, the comedy is leaden, and the dialogue is obtuse. I hate to break it to him, but I have no time for this. My city screams.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Frank Miller’s The Spirit is far more than just merely bad. Like the most infamous movie disaster of all, Ed Wood’s Plan Nine From Outer Space, it veers wildly from stunning weirdness to unintentional hilarity, interspersed with frequent stretches of insufferable boredom. But what truly lands The Spirit among the rarified company of true cinematic crimes against humanity is that it is the insane and unhinged product of a uniquely obsessed auteur mind… The Octopus is a mad scientist conducting all sorts of medical atrocities in the name of mutating himself to godlike powers. He deems one of his misfired experiments as ‘just plain damn weird,’ a phrase apropos of the movie itself.” – Chad Ossman, Thinking Out Loud

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