Tag Archives: Black Comedy

CAPSULE: WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE (1995)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Heather Matarazzo, , Matthew Faber

PLOT: The trials and tribulations of Dawn Wiener, the least popular girl in her middle school (and in her own family).

COMMENTS: With it’s unflinching depiction of junior high social dynamics—including a bully who angrily promises to “rape” his twelve-year-old schoolmate, treating it as the male-female equivalent of an afterschool fight—Welcome to the Dollhouse was a shocker in 1995. Most previous Hollywood coming-of-age movies were nostalgic comedies where the even nerdiest outcasts had their moments to shine (a la The Breakfast Club). Classics like Zéro de conduite (1933) and If…. (1968) focused on the dark side of schoolboy fascism, but operated more as surreal political allegories than slice-of-life character studies. Although one probably exists, I can’t think of a pre-Dollhouse movie that focused so masochistically on its protagonist’s fatal unpopularity. The 400 Blows comes close, but it still features a charismatic antihero who triumphs through rebellion. Solondz allows Dawn Wiener no triumphs, symbolic or otherwise.

The courage to take on such on a then-unusual subject as teenage bullying and abuse made Dollhouse seem like a work of startling realism to many. Many of the episodes seem taken from real life: the outcast kid’s anxiety over finding a place to sit in the lunchroom, for example, or a group of cheerleaders asking the nerdy kid if she’s a lesbian and not taking no for an answer. But most of the story is only emotionally true. Do you remember when you were a kid and your parents took some home videos and you did something mildly embarrassing like stumbling in the pool, and when they played it back you were sure everyone was pointing and laughing at you? In Welcome to the Dollhouse, the whole family is actually pointing and laughing at you when they play it back, calling you out by name, actively enjoying your humiliation. And can we actually believe that Dawn could run away from her middle-class home—in the midst of a separate family tragedy—and her disappearance go virtually unnoticed? We see these events through Dawn Weiner’s paranoid preteen eyes, and while she’s perfect at conveying her own feelings of alienation, she’s an unreliable narrator as to external events.

This ironic tone—the light-hearted world of childhood, with its secret clubs and garage bands and first kisses that we expect from these kinds of coming-of-age movies, coupled with the far more realistic scenes of kids being mean to each other and being psychologically and neglected abused by their elders—may strike some as “weird.” To be honest, I find that while Dollhouse was a revelation in its day, its not the landmark many feel it to be. It isn’t nearly the gut-punch that much darker and more bizarre followup, Happiness, was. And, though far be it for me to recommend realist movies, I found Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (2018), a straightforward drama hopskotching across approximately the same pavement, to be a better and more moving treatment of similar subject matter. This material calls for unflinching truthfulness, it needs no varnishing. Middle school is awkward and horrible for everyone, and for kids at the status-poor end of the social spectrum, it’s truly hellish. Though frequently called a “black comedy,” there’s precious little to actually raise a smile in Welcome to the Dollhouse, and its mixture of painful realism and morbid exaggeration doesn’t feel revolutionary anymore. The sadness of Dawn’s plight still comes through as jaggedly as ever, however. Thank goodness middle school only last three years (and that Dollhouse only lasts 90 minutes).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Solondz] shows the kind of unrelenting attention to detail that is the key to satire… If you can see this movie without making a mental hit list of the kids who made your 11th year a torment, then you are kinder, or luckier, than me.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Frank, who called it “Uncomfortable to watch at times, but watched it several times since it came out in the mid-90s.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

*24. KEEP AN EYE OUT (2018)

Au Poste!

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Quentin Dupieux

FEATURING: , , Marc Fraize, Anaïs Demoustier

PLOT: Having discovered a dead body under not-very suspicious circumstances, Louis is brought in by the police for questioning. His account of the event arouses the suspicions of police commissioner Buron, but Louis is even more suspicious of the police because of their circular arguments, penchant for distraction, and curious behavior. Louis becomes concerned that he will bear the responsibility for an increasing number of unlucky events, and must recount his actions in fine detail in an effort to affirm his innocence.

Still from Keep an Eye Out [Au Poste!] (2018)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was native Frenchman Dupieux’s first feature actually produced in his home country.
  • The film’s original French title translates as “To the police station!” It can also be translated to mean “at the office.” It can also be interpreted to mean someone who is at their assigned spot (“at one’s post”), in much the way a call of “Places!” summons the actors to their marks at the start of a play.
  • Scenes at the police station were filmed in the headquarters of the French Communist Party, designed by acclaimed architect Oscar Niemeyer.
  • Alain Chabat is credited with providing “screams of pain.” Chabat appeared in Reality as a film director attempting to win an Oscar for the best wail of pain.
  • The film’s poster parodies that of the significantly more action-oriented Jean-Paul Belmondo crime thriller Peur sur la Ville (Fear over the City).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Philippe, a hapless cop-wannabe, suffers from an unfortunate condition, and its reveal is a genuine shock. It’s not merely that he has only one eye. It’s that the whole upper quadrant of his face is smoothed over, as though the mere idea of an eye socket never existed. And once he begins espousing his hyper-preparedness for even the most surreal of accidents, it is absolutely inevitable that Chekhov’s Plastic Angle Square will fulfill its destiny.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Near nude conductor; crunchy oyster

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: by way of with a healthy layer of Douglas Adams and a final punch of Sartre, Keep an Eye Out is a fantasia of absurdism. Dupieux and his actors seem to be engaged in a contest to see who can be the most deadpan, and the tone never wavers, neither in the face of escalating ridiculousness nor an unexpected and tragic conclusion.

Original trailer for Au Poste!

COMMENTS: We begin with an orchestra in a meadow, accompanying the opening credits under the baton of a mustachioed man clad Continue reading *24. KEEP AN EYE OUT (2018)

CAPSULE: PERIOD PIECE (2006)

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BewareWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Giuseppe Andrews

FEATURING: Bill Tyree, Giuseppe Andrews

PLOT: Intertwined stories of a number of absurd characters including a French dwarf who has rough sex with a teddy bear and a perpetually naked old man who has sex with an imaginary woman.

Still from period piece (2006)

COMMENTS: “WARNING: This film contains senior citizen nudity and dead pigs.”

Now, geriatric nudity is no big thing (although when the octogenarian attempts to holds pork rinds between his buttcheeks, you may disagree). That dead pig, though… we’ll get to it.

Period Piece is a series of absurdist sketches that rarely rise to the level of jokes, and never to the level of insights. They aren’t planned out, they are just passing spurts from the brain of director Giuseppe Andrews, whose mind is not filled with classical allusions like a or scathing anti-bourgeois fantasies like a , but mostly with dirty words, bodily function imagery, and trailer park culture. The result is arrested development surrealism, like something made by if he were a complete psychopath.

You get segments about two guys who siphon gas to get money to shoot heroin in a car wash. Two other guys mime eating each others’ farts (which they slice with a plastic knife and eat with a fork, in about the closest the film comes to eliciting a chuckle.) Stop-motion tater tots have sex in front of a shrine to Charles Manson. A guy eats raw hamburger. That kind of stuff. It’s shot in camcorder glare, and the editing is deliberately bad, as if a few “good” fifteen second takes were assembled to make a scene. Sometimes the same line repeats with slightly different inflection. It’s unpleasantly disorienting and visually unflattering, so Andrews does achieve the Americana nightmare feel he’s going for. And just so you won’t be fooled into thinking you’re watching something with socially redeeming value, it opens with a bit where a guy wearing a fake mustache and speaking in a Pepe le Pew accent sodomizes a teddy bear with an industrial sized can of calm chowder. (The repeated, graphic molestation of the stuffed sex slave is an ongoing motif.) Also, a lot of people shoot themselves in ineffective mock suicides. It’s as disgusting as it sounds, and much of the time, it’s repetitive and tedious, but it’s capable of holding your interest—against your better judgement.

Although the climactic dead pig is explicitly named “Society,” the main target of the film’s ongoing and pervasive anger has been women and scarcity of sex. The teddy bear who “likes it rough” seems to stand in for woman as sexual objects. In one vignette a man threatens to kill a “whore” for cheating on him. A father and son leaf through the gynecological displays in well-worn stroke mags, and the son dreams of scoring someday. The naked old man delivers obscene, scatological monologues about vaginas. Although Andrews had  a girlfriend at the time, and there is a woman in the cast, the whole project gives off the vibe of something conceived by poor white guys who’ve lost all hope of ever getting laid. Therefore, when Andrews’ attempt to top Pink Flamingos in the grossout department has the naked old man hack at the pig’s head with a hatchet while screaming insults at it, I was put more in mind of incels releasing sexual frustration than outsiders taking revenge against a system that has marginalized them.

The ending of the film disclaims that “no animals were hurt in the making of this film… they were already dead!” This is not strictly true. What about the human animals in the audience who had to watch it?

proudly (?) picked up Period Piece (and some other Andrews movies) for distribution, despite the fact that it’s much darker (and even cheaper) than their usual fare. The DVD features an incongruously cheerful introduction by , a Kaufman interview with Andrews, trailers for other Andrews movies, an obscene misogynist poem written by Andrews and read bumblingly by Tyree, and the entire 70-minute bonus feature Jacuzzi Rooms— which is literally just an unscripted chronicle of four rednecks drinking heavily in a motel room. Fun stuff, for people for whom nothing matters.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Take John Waters at his shock heights, a sizable helping of Harmony Korine’s Gummo, and a completely amateur visual aesthetic you have a vague idea as to what kind of film your in store for… From frame one you are forced into its full tilt bizarro world. You either get on for the ride or reject it completely.”–Infini-Tropolis (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by Tally Isham, who said “Not sure if I recommend seeing it, but it’s zero-budget weirdness.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE NINE LIVES OF TOMAS KATZ (2000)

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DIRECTED BY: Ben Hopkins

FEATURING: Tom Fisher, Ian McNiece, Will Keen, Tony Maudsley

PLOT: On the day of a rare solar eclipse, a stranger with the ability to switch places with others arrives in London. His identity-swapping and subsequent trouble-making have an immediate impact on the natural order of things. A police inspector suspects that the disappearance of the Astral Child That Represents Existence may be responsible for the strange happenings and interrogates the spirits in an attempt to stave off disaster.

Still from The Nine Lives of Thomas Katz (2001)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Combining stark surrealism, a heightened and aching sense of dread, and a heaping dollop of British absurdism, The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz has a profoundly distinctive point of view—there’s a perverse thrill in the way the film not only accepts its incongruities but relies upon a relentless commitment to them.

COMMENTS: Tomas Katz – whose name might in fact be “No” – has a ready answer to a casual question about what he does for a living: “I cut people open to find out where their dreams lurk.” What he doesn’t say is that he knows the ugly truth about most of those dreams: they are fractured or forever out of reach or consigned to the dustbin of memory. And this is the day when Tomas Katz will resolve all of those dreams by ending the world.

If The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz could be said to have a theme, it is that the world is simultaneously ridiculous and tragic. For a movie ostensibly about the end of everything, there’s not much concern about the actual end. It all seems pretty messed up, and usually in a pretty amusing way. We’ve got war, but it’s declared by the Minister for Fisheries against a country with a silly name. We’ve got financial calamity, but it’s brought about by an angelic choir. We even have the mass of humanity marching to Gehenna, but that just turns out to be the last stop on the London Underground. It’s nihilism with a smile, a sweet-smelling hangover.

The world into which No enters, which is primarily London as encompassed by the M25 motorway, is one where Britain’s famous stiff upper lip has metastasized into a blend of habit and ennui. Londoners are trained to silently endure the wait for their train, so when an announcement informs them that their trip will be delayed to accommodate the souls of the dead, there’s barely a perceptible change in tone. Similarly, the deployment of a tuning fork that kills all children on national television might seem destined to arouse anger and protest, but broadcasters know just how to smooth over the ruffled feathers: “The BBC would like to apologize for the widespread destruction and loss of infant life.” It’s not that the world will end with a whimper, but just that nobody wants to make a fuss.

There may be no better synthesis of the mood of Tomas Katz than a sequence where No encounters a boy bemoaning his fate: he has no friends, and his Tamagotchi died just that morning. The scene turns into a silent film, complete with wailing strings and ornate title cards. “The tamagotchis will be freed from their cages,” No assures the boy, “and all will be released.” Then he swaps places with the boy and experiences all the highs and lows of childhood, the joy and the cruelty, the pleasure and pain. It’s not too hard to understand why No feels tremendous pity for the doomed human race, and why he’s simultaneously content to burn it all down.

Tomas Katz is a genuinely funny movie, but it’s an especially English kind of funny, Britbox with bite. Consider the rabbi whom the BBC has called in to offer his wisdom to the nation despite the inconvenience of having been dead for two years. Or perhaps the police report of a window conspiracy, which is an amusing combination until we actually get to see it play out. In fact, the tone shifts so widely that the film could easily be called The Nine Films of Tomas Katz, yet it never loses its focus or its bleak humor.

For a small-scale, microbudget endeavor, Tomas Katz plays big. Huge credit goes to lead Tom Fisher, who embraces the chance to play multiple characters with a unique blend of sympathy and savagery. Kudos also to Ian McNiece, whose fearful police inspector manages to find drama and pathos in connections that make no logical sense. And a special shout-out to Dominik Scherrer’s diverse and adaptable score, which encompasses opera, techno, klezmer, Klaus Nomi, patriotic marches, and more.

Fittingly, it isn’t No who brings about the end of the world. He hands that honor to a security guard named Dave, whom he identifies as “the most vacuous being in the universe.” (Dave doesn’t seem too put out by this.) We will ultimately be the agent of our own demise, it turns out. The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz shows what that grand finale will look like if we all just keep calm and carry on.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This has to be one of the strangest films of the year, a weird apocalyptic vision shot in the most mundane of London surroundings, with all too obvious budgetary constraints pushed asunder by the sheer energy of the director’s imagination.” – George Perry, BBC (contemporaneous)

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