Tag Archives: Breaking the fourth wall

336. HELLZAPOPPIN’ (1941)

“The expanse of humour in American life has historically shown the health of the democratic system in its ability to absorb criticism and analysis, even in their most pointed, satiric, sardonic, or absurdist forms, or when cast solely as entertainment.”–Russel Carmony, “The rise of American fascism — and what humour can do to stop it”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ole Olsen, Chic Johnson, Martha Raye, , Mischa Auer, Jane Frazee, Robert Paige, Lewis Howard, Shemp Howard, Richard Lane, Elisha Cook Jr.

PLOT: The film begins with the projectionist (who will play an active role in the story) loading a reel of film: a musical number set in Hell. That scene ends with the arrival of “our prize guests,” Olsen and Johnson, who are in turn interrupted by the director who objects to their series of gags and demands that they have a story “because every picture has one.” The director presents them with a script for “a picture about a picture about ‘Hellzapoppin”, which loosely revolves a love triangle among socialites who are also staging a play (with disastrous results).

Still from Hellzapoppin' (1941)

BACKGROUND:

  • Hellzapoppin’ was the film version of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson’s stage variety show, which opened on Broadway in 1938. The show had no running plot, but consisted of a collection of comedy sketches, musical numbers, and audience participation routines that played off current events and would change from performance to performance. Olsen and Johnson often improvised their routines. With 1,404 performances, it was the longest-running show on Broadway up until that time.
  • The original show closed on December 18, 1941; the film debuted on December 26, 1941. Olsen and Johnson revived the show many times, and it went on road tours (with rotating casts, often without Olsen and Johnson) throughout the 1940s.
  • One of the few bits that was recycled from the play for the movie is the man who wanders through the scenes carrying a potted tree, which grows bigger as the production progresses.
  • Hellzapoppin’ received an Oscar nomination for “Best Original Song” for “Pig Foot Pete.” The song “Pig Foot Pete,” however, doesn’t appear in Hellzapoppin’.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The rapid pace of the visual gags makes this one almost impossible to pick. The opening seven minutes in Hell alone could probably yield half a dozen respectable candidates. We’ll go with the moment that Olsen (I think) blows on his diminutive taxi driver, transforming him in a flash of smoke into a jockey on a horse (with, for some reason, a tic-tac-toe game stenciled on its side). The fella is immediately launched from his saddle on a trip into Hell’s sulfurous stratosphere—but that’s already another image altogether.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Canned guys and gals; Frankenstein’s monster hurls ballerina; invisible comedian hemispheres

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A staircase collapses, dumping socialites into Hell where devils with pitchforks do somersaults off trampolines and juggle flaming torches. Women are roasted on spits. Farm animals tumble out of a taxicab like it was a clown car. The projectionist runs the film back and plays a scene again, to a different conclusion. And that’s just the first five minutes! “This is Hellzapoppin’!”


Fan-made trailer for Hellzapoppin’

COMMENTS: I can’t tell which one is Olsen and which one is Johnson. This may seem like a small point of confusion in a movie in which Continue reading 336. HELLZAPOPPIN’ (1941)

324. NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (1941)

“If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.”–attributed to W.C. Fields

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Edward F. Cline

FEATURING: , Gloria Jean, Franklin Pangborn, , Susan Miller, Leon Errol

PLOT: W.C. Fields (playing himself) is pitching a new screenplay to Esoteric Pictures, while serving as temporary guardian to his niece, an up-and-coming actress. He describes his story—which begins with him falling out of an airplane and landing in a secluded mountaintop garden where he finds a beautiful virgin and her wealthy mother, and just gets stranger—to an increasingly skeptical producer. After the producer passes on the script, Fields and his niece leave the business, and he ends up rushing a woman to a maternity hospital.

Still from Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was W.C. Fields’ final featured role. Both his health and his performances were suffering due to his alcoholism. In addition, Fields had long argued with Universal Studio executives, seeking more creative control over his projects. They finally granted his wishes in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. Just like the producer within the film, they hated the result. Universal gave Sucker little promotion and decided not to renew Fields’ contract. He made a handful of smaller appearances in movies until 1944, then died on Christmas day in 1946 at the age of 66.
  • Fields didn’t write the screenplay, but is credited for the “original story” under the pseudonym Otis Criblecoblis.
  • The title is taken from a line of dialogue from Fields’ play (later movie) Poppy, where he played a con man. Universal rejected his proposed title for the movie, The Great Man. Fields is listed as “the Great Man” in the credits.
  • The Hays office rejected Fields’ original script, objecting to  “jocular references to drinking and liquor,” the word “pansy,” scenes of Fields ogling women, and suggestive shots of bananas. A scene in a saloon was absurdly revised to take place in an ice cream parlor, which gave Fields an opportunity to make a jokes at the censors’ expense.
  • Despite promising Fields creative control, Universal reportedly re-cut the film and even reshot scenes.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Fields’ free-fall when he jumps off the airplane’s open observation deck (!) after accidentally knocking over his bottle of whiskey.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Plummeting drunkard; fanged dog; pet mountain gorilla

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Considered in isolation, the middle section of Sucker—Fields’ fevered film-within-the-film—is as strange a comedy short as was ever greenlit by Hollywood in the studio system era. Interference from censors, both in the Hayes office and Universal boardrooms, resulted in the already stream-of-consciousness script being further chopped up into something that approached incoherence. Sucker was Fields’ “screw you” to the suits, a poison pill of bitter satire dissolved in a pint of gin, served on the rocks with a twist of absurdity. By a man in a gorilla suit.


Fan-made trailer for Never Give a Sucker an Even Break

COMMENTS: In the early days of Hollywood, comedians established a persona and stuck to it, essentially playing the same character in movie after movie. While most comics adopted sympathetic Continue reading 324. NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (1941)

308. FUNERAL PARADE OF ROSES (1969)

Bara no sôretsu 

“Elle est dans ma voix, la criarde!
C’est tout mon sang ce poison noir!
Je suis le sinistre miroir
Où la mégère se regarde.”

“It’s in my voice, the raucous jade!
It’s in my blood’s black venom too!
I am the looking-glass, wherethrough
Megera sees herself portrayed!”

–Baudelaire, “L’Héautontimorouménos,” Fleurs du Mal (English translation Roy Campbell)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Toshio Matsumoto

FEATURING: Peter (Pîtâ), Yoshio Tsuchiya, Osamu Ogasawara, Toyosaburo Uchiyama

PLOT: Eddie is a rising star in a Japanese drag cabaret; he is having an affair with the bar’s owner, Gondo. The club’s “madame,” Leda, who is also sleeping with Gondo, grows jealous of Eddie and devises a revenge against him. This story is served up out-of-sequence, however, and often broken up by stand-alone vignettes and documentary-style interviews where the actors are questioned about their alternative lifestyles and their roles in the film.

Still from Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was director Toshio Matsumoto’s first feature film after producing nine shorts (mostly documentaries). Matsumoto would continue to work largely in the short format: among his thirty-four credited directorial works, only four are categorized as full-length features. He was also a critic and theorist whose collected writings span six volumes. He died in 2017.
  • The “gay boys” were played by non-professional actors from the Tokyo homosexual community. The star, Peter, developed an acting career afterwards, advancing far enough to land the role of the Fool in ‘s Ran.
  • The Japanese word meaning “roses” was also derisive slang for homosexuals.
  • The avant-garde short screened within the film is “Ecstasis,” which also stars Peter and Toyosaburo Uchiyama.  Matsumoto released it separately.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Eddie’s face, not androgynous, but wholly feminine, though glamed-up with an array of tiaras, false eyelashes, and decorative star stickers. We particularly like the scene where Leda (dressed as a geisha) is admiring herself in the mirror (and silently incanting “Snow White”‘s “mirror, mirror, on the wall…”), as an image of Eddie strides up from behind, invading Leda’s looking-glass in his black evening gown.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Ladies at a urinal; drag queen shootout; too-literal Oedipus complex

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Helped along by an earnestly queer cast of amateurs, Funeral Parade of Roses is a masquerade drag burlesque, a tragic and absurd procession of countercultural confusion among “gay boys” in a tumultuous Japan. A psychedelic-era movie set in Tokyo’s underground homosexual community that takes its bearings from “Oedipus Rex” and name-checks Jonas Mekas and Jean Genet along the way—pausing for a liberal dose of slapstick—is bound to turn out weird.


Brief fan-edit of scenes from Funeral Parade of Roses

COMMENTS: “Each man has his own mask,” says the voice from the Continue reading 308. FUNERAL PARADE OF ROSES (1969)

LIST CANDIDATE: TAMPOPO (1985)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jûzô Itami

FEATURING: Tsutomu Yamazaki, Nobuko Miyamoto, , Fukumi Kuroda

PLOT: A stranger rides into town and helps a struggling widow to master the art of noodle preparation, while peripheral characters enact food-related comic sketches.

Still from Tampopo (1985)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Tampopo‘s parodic tale of noodle shop warfare is almost straightforward, if offbeat. Fortunately, there are enough surreal diversions—a fourth-wall breaking introduction where a gangster lectures the audience about eating too loudly during the movie and scenes exploring the erotic possibilities of live shrimp and egg yolks—to make this one worth a weird watch.

COMMENTS: Few movies can make you as hungry as Tampopo, the savory “noodle Western” (or “Eastern”) about an itinerant truck driver/gourmet who trains a mediocre cook to prepare the world’s greatest bowl of ramen. The main plot lightly parodies Westerns, with the stranger wandering into town to help (and woo) the local attractive widow, complete with showdowns with the local gang—although they battle not with guns, but with cutlery. In between advancing that storyline, the film takes time out for unrelated absurdist sketches revolving around food. (In the first of these, we visit a five star restaurant for a business meal where sycophantic salarymen order the same bland meal as the boss, while in another room a matronly etiquette maven tries in vain to teach young ladies to eat their spaghetti without slurping). The most of memorable of these excursions involves a mysterious yakuza in a white suit, who has kinky gourmet sex in a hotel room with his mistress. Come to think of it, the movie may make you as horny as it does hungry, although the sex is (almost) all done in good taste.

Not that it’s all fluffy, marshmallowy cinema. There are moments here that seem better fitted to a mondo film, such as the killing of a turtle (with one quick slice from a knife inserted under the shell), and the thematically meaningful yet taboo footage that plays while the credits roll. Many people find the egg yolk foreplay more yucky than erotic, while there’s another scene where the yakuza flirts with–and even French kisses—a dangerously underage oyster fisherwoman. These scenes are mildly shocking, although they’re neither mean-spirited nor deployed simply for the sake of shock. They add pungent, R-rated spice to a movie that might otherwise be too sweet and mild; with a few judicious cuts, it’s appropriate for a school-age crowd.

I first saw Tampopo (on VHS) when it came out thirty years ago, and although I had a generally good impression of it, I didn’t remember much beyond the basic premise. I’m surprised that I didn’t recall it as being especially strange or surreal. I found it a more interesting film this time around, which suggests that this may be a movie that takes some life seasoning to appreciate. It’s essentially a silly work, but as a paean to the pleasures of food and sex (and movies), it’s an easy one to champion.

The Criterion Collection released Tampopo on DVD in 2010, then finally upgraded it to Blu-ray this year (2017).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of those utterly original movies that seems to exist in no known category…. the movie is so consumed and detailed, so completely submerged in noodleology, it takes on a kind of weird logic of its own.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “upgrayedd,” who simply said “Tampopo is a weirdo.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: SLC PUNK (1998)

DIRECTED BY: James Merendino

FEATURING: , Michael A. Goorjian, Annabeth Gish

PLOT: Young rebels grow up in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA—a location not very conductive to rebellion.

Still from SLC Punk (1998)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: One-and-a-half acid trip sequences do not a weird film make, especially when they’re just played for a quick laugh. SLC Punk is in fact a pretty wholesome teenage rumination which happens to be set against the background of the 1980s; in this modern day, it plays like Disney trying to make its own Trainspotting.

COMMENTS: Punk, especially ’80s punk, is a genre defined largely by arguments about its own definition, and SLC Punk spends a lot of time on the debate itself. At the end of the day, we have to give up trying to pin down the genre nobody can agree on and just move on, waving our hands at “that thing over there,” whatever you call it. Punk is Tao; to define it is to grip the air. And we all know the Billie Joe Armstrong quote, thanks.

With that out of the way, you will search far and wide for a comparably mature and realistic snapshot of punk rock culture, the Reaganomics ’80s, or Salt Lake City, for that matter. Stevo (Matthew Lillard) carries us through from start to finish, telling us of his life and coming of age. Along the way, we get some philosophizing about what it means to be a non-conformist, and how to harmonize your nonconformity with the world around you. Stevo’s cast of friends are characters in a punk-culture parable: some come to good ends, some to bad, and some just cruise along.

Not only does Stevo narrate, but he erases the fourth wall and takes us on live guided tours around his life, introducing us to his friends at a party as if we, the audience, were attending. Further segments become mini-documentaries, tackling the rivalry between punk and other cultures, the dichotomy of “posers” within the culture, U.S. vs. U.K. punks, what it’s like to score drugs or even decent alcohol in Utah, and other video-blog topics. We meet Stevo’s chum “Heroin” Bob (Michael A. Goorjian), his dad (Christopher McDonald) who doesn’t quite see eye to eye with his son but manages to have an amicable relationship anyway, his girlfriend Trish (Annabeth Gish), and his drug connection and part-time psycho Mark (Til Schweiger). There’s no real plot to be found here, just a series of interrelated vignettes in the day-to-day lives of these characters.

SLC Punk is a much-cherished cult classic which looks amazing for its six-figure budget. Its soundtrack is one of the greatest punk albums you will ever own; this is the music punks actually listened to in the ‘80s, as opposed to the music we think they listened to. While the movie puts the dyed mohawks and party hi-jinks up front, at its core it’s a thoughtful documentary masquerading as a fictional dramedy, one that wears its heart on its sleeve. It even winds up on a positive note, miraculously pulling through the nihilism to come to some upbeat conclusions, even though not everybody pulls through. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll be left with a story that transcends a punk culture exposé and resonates with any youth scene in any state during any decade. All of us, goths, mods, emos, slackers, hippies, yuppies, and hipsters, are all our own brand of punk… and in the end, we are all posers to somebody.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an absurdist coming-of-age comedy… likable for its outlandishness, less so when it shows a self-important streak. For all of Merendino’s jump-cutting affectations and other flashes of attitude, it’s finally as mainstream as its hero turns out to be.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

266. 200 MOTELS (1971)

Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels

“I never set out to be weird. It was always other people who called me weird.”–Frank Zappa, Baltimore Sun, October 12, 1986
Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Tony Palmer, Frank Zappa

FEATURING: , , , , , Jimmy Carl Black, Frank Zappa

PLOT: A collection of absurd sketches about life on the road as a rock band, 200 Motels offers very little in the way of plot. Running bits include Ringo Starr playing a large dwarf enlisted to portray Zappa, Theodore Bikel as a Mephistophelean figure trying to get the band to sign documents in blood, and Keith Moon as a groupie dressed as a nun; amidst the chaos, the band members constantly try to either get laid, get high, or scheme to form spin-off bands. In between, Zappa and the band perform musical numbers like “Lonesome Cowboy Burt,” and Zappa conducts an orchestra playing his avant-garde classical compositions.

Still from 200 Motels (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • Frank Zappa thought up the idea for the film while on tour with the Mothers of Invention. He wrote much of the music in 200 Motels from motel rooms while on tour.
  • The opening credits explain the split in the directorial duties, with Tony Palmer credited for “visuals” and Zappa for directing the “characterizations.”
  • Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (“Flo and Eddie”) formerly comprised the Turtles, who had a smash hit with “Happy Together.” They joined Zappa’s band, the Mothers of Invention, as featured vocalists in 1970, and stayed in the Mothers until 1972—just long enough to have featured roles in 200 Motels.
  • Ringo Starr’s chauffeur played the band’s bass player: according to one anecdote, he was cast after the two bass players quit the band and a frustrated Zappa vowed to hire the next person who walked through the door.
  • 200 Motels was one of the earliest films shot on video and transferred to film. Shooting on video allowed Tony Palmer to create visual effects that would have been too expensive to shoot on film.
  • In his review of the soundtrack album, Palmer called 200 Motelsone of the worst films in the entire history of cinema, a criticism which I can confidently assert because I was in part responsible for its direction.
  • In 1988 Zappa made a documentary about the film called The True Story of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels. That rarity is long out of print on VHS and has never had an authorized DVD or Blu-ray release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Tony Palmer overlaid trippy experimental video effects—the visual correlative of Frank Zappa’s oddball music—over almost every minute of the running time, making this a particularly difficult movie to choose a single image for. These tricks accumulate to build up a hazy impression of whirling psychedelia. Since we have to pick one image, however, we’ll go with our first view of Centerville, the small town enveloped in a wavering pattern of lysergic zebra stripes, which represents the hazy, melted-together vision of every two-bit town the band soldiers through.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Hot Nun; towel smoking; penis oratorio

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: If anything sets 200 Motels apart from the other psychedelic cinematic noodlings of the hippie era, it’s Frank Zappa’s extraordinarily weird music—a unique mix of jazz-inflected blues/rock, avant-garde 12-tone classical music, and junior high school sex jokes. Mix concert footage (both of the Mothers of Invention and the orchestra Zappa retained for the shoot) with experimental videos, underground cartoons, oddball rock star cameos, and no plot whatsoever and you have a movie worthy of the production company’s name: “Bizarre Productions.” Zappa is a latter-day saint of pop-surrealism, and although he’ll always be best known for his music, this is the canonical record of his twisted sensibility on film.


Original trailer for 200 Motels

COMMENTS: The original tagline did not read “Ringo Starr IS Larry Continue reading 266. 200 MOTELS (1971)

263. ROMA (1972)

AKA Fellini’s Roma

“Rome was a poem pressed into service as a city.”–Anatole Broyard

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Peter Gonzales Falcon

PLOT: Roma is a series of vignettes, some relatively realistic and some fantastic, about the city of Rome. The closest thing to a plot are the scenes involving Fellini himself, who dreams about the city as a young man, comes there as a teen, and then is seen making a movie about the city as an adult. Other segments involve a bawdy street meal, a vaudeville show during World War II, modern hippies drifting through Rome, a pair of brothels, and the infamous ecclesiastical fashion show.

Still from Roma (1972)

BACKGROUND:

  • Fellini came to Rome from Rimini as an 18-year old to go to law school, although he quickly abandoned that pretense to pursue an artistic career path. Although it seems clear that Fellini means for the young provincial boy who dreams of Rome and the young man who steps off the train and into a Roman pensione to be his stand-ins, the director never makes this explicit. United Artists asked for voiceover narration to make this identification clear in the version that played in the U.S.
  • The film was shortened by nine minutes (to a running time of two hours) for its international release, and some changes were made for different markets. Slightly different cuts have circulated for years, and there is no restored print of the original Italian version, although the extra footage survives in workprints. Among the deleted scenes was one where appeared as himself.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The star image here could not be something other than an offering from the ecclesiastical fashion show. Candidates include the bishops’ uniforms with blinking stained glass patterns and a shrouded skeletal “memento mori” carriage that carries up the end of the procession. We’ll select the grand finale, the appearance of a glowing, flying Pope cast as a pagan sun god, with electronic sunbeams streaming behind his beatifically beaming countenance.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Horse on the highway; fading frescoes; light-up miter

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The speedy editing of the U.S. release trailer misleadingly emphasizes the decadent aspects of Fellini’s Roma, making it look like a trippy sequel to Satyricon for the pot-smoking college midnight movie crowd. In truth, while Roma is experimental and disorientingly non-linear, it’s greatly restrained compared to its psychedelic predecessor. Most of the sequences are only subtly strange, pitched in the almost-realistic register of Fellini’s next film, Amarcord. Or at least, that’s the case up until the fashion show, when Fellini ignites the film with a surreal, blasphemous brand. This grand vaudeville sequence, which lasts over 15 minutes, catapults the film from a borderline curiosity from an innovative master to an acknowledged staple of the weird canon.


American release trailer for Roma

COMMENTS: Rome is the eternal city, once the seat of Europe’s Continue reading 263. ROMA (1972)