Tag Archives: Breaking the fourth wall

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: TOUT VA BIEN (1972)

AKA All’s Well, Just Great, Everything’s Alright

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DIRECTED BY: Jean-Luc Godard,

FEATURING: Yves Montand, ,

PLOT: Susan, an expatriate American journalist, and Jacques, her commercial-director husband, visit a sausage factory on the day that the workers launch a strike and are trapped in the building for two days; after the strike ends, they reflect on the decline of their leftist ideals, and their relationship.

Still from Tout va bien (1972)

COMMENTS: A full year after it was published, a particular excerpt from KC Green’s webcomic “Gunshow” began to gain traction as a meme. The strip, “On Fire,” tracked the fate of a bowler-hatted canine as he maintained his optimism in the face of rising and increasingly destructive flames. Intriguingly, it was the first two panels that became a widely recognized meme, setting our inferno-consumed scene and enshrining the dog’s preternaturally calm assessment, “This is fine.” Lost in the commodification of the image was the build and climax, including Question Hound’s confident ignorance (“I’m okay with the events that are unfolding currently”), his more uncertain self-assurance (“That’s okay, things are going to be okay”), and finally his ultimate fate in the conflagration, melted into hideous deformation like a decorative candle left in the attic. 

Tout Va Bien, which translates literally as “everything is going well,” lives in the space of those forgotten panels. While leftists remember the raucous events of May 68 for the drama of the strikes, protests, and occupations that brought France to a halt, the aftermath four years later find them exhausted, frustrated at their failure to transform society, and uncertain of the line between social and personal gain. So it is that a Communist leader, far from triumphing over the tyranny of capitalism, can be found in a store hawking his book. (“4.75 francs, marked down from 5.50!”) 

Godard and Gorin feel this uncertainty very keenly. Having spent the past several years trying to make Marxist movies in a Marxist fashion, Tout Va Bien was a step back into (relatively) mainstream cinema. As it happens, the movie begins with a pair of offscreen voices debating the traditional story elements needed in a successful film, followed by a series of checks being written to the many participants in the production. The message “you’ve got to spend money to make money” is clearly delivered.

But it’s not as though Jean-Luc Godard is going to suddenly go full Marvel. The subject of leftist dissatisfaction with their role in the political conversation is hardly mainstream subject matter. His technique is forcefully Brechtian, as characters frequently face the fourth wall to expand upon their complaints. And for all the power of having two international movie icons as your leads, the directors give them precious little to do beyond watch the actions around them as they unfold, and to describe their frustrations to each other—and to us. Godard may adopt the conventions of traditional moviemaking, but he puts them in service to a stridently political message, one that asks the question, “Why didn’t we change the world?”

Two of Godard and Gorin’s set pieces are genuine showstoppers. They build the factory set vertically, allowing us a peek into every room, much like the ship cutaway in Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. (Contemporary critics regularly cited Jerry Lewis’ The Ladies Man as a visual inspiration.) This proves valuable in predicting the fate of the strike, as we watch the angry employees break down into factions, fight over their aims, alternate between pointed agitprop and steam-venting vandalism, while each of them insists that their part of the literal sausage-making process is the worst. This is bookended with a stunning tracking shot along the checkout lines at a impressively large supermarket, wherein we watch the lifecycle of a protest as it goes from citizens trying to go about their business to mass defiance to the inevitable violent crackdown by the authorities. These are not surprising messages, but they demonstrate vividly what Godard’s filmmaking acumen can bring to the telling.

Tout Va Bien is an elegy for active leftism. Five decades later, the situations echo strongly with current events, and the young people in the movie chanting “Cops! Bosses! Murderers!” feel like direct ancestors to the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter protests of recent years. But the outcome is also mirrored in our time. As the film concludes, a chipper tune pops in to proclaim, “It’s sunny in France, nothing else matters.” It’s the kind of song that’s probably playing in a room filled with fire, while a melting dog nods along.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Godard’s strange fusion of his pre- and post-radicalized styles turned off critics and audiences alike, but Criterion’s lovingly assembled new DVD suggests that it warrants reappraisal. Though certainly dull and didactic at times, Tout Va Bien is remarkable foremost for its sustained twilight mood of exquisite resignation, of exhausted sadness and bone-deep world-weariness.”–Nathan Rabin, The A.V. Club (home video release)

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

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ASTEROID CITY (2023)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Jake Ryan, , , Grace Edwards, Tom Hanks, , Brian Cranston

PLOT: Playwright Conrad Earp writes “Asteroid City,” about a photojournalist visiting the titular location with his gifted son for a Junior Stargazers convention; everyone is stranded there when an extraterrestrial event causes the town to be quarantined.

Still from Asteroid City (2023)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: We’ve been waiting and waiting for Wes to go full weird; he takes his swat with Asteroid City. It’s also the weirdest movie Tom Hanks has ever appeared in—a low bar, for sure, but that has to count for something.

COMMENTS: Skipping over the prologue for the moment, Asteroid City is everything you expect from a Wes Anderson movie: symmetrical, meticulous, stylized, deadpan, with a large cast of familiar faces portraying well-defined quirky characters snapping out witty dialogue. The locale is a mid-century America desert village—a one-road stop with no more than a gas station, diner, motel, observatory, train tracks, and an unfinished on-ramp to nowhere—with atomic tests periodically sprouting mushroom clouds in the background. The color palette is turquoise skies and beige sand, with the occasional burst of radioactive orange, bathed in (as the stage directions instruct) clean, unforgiving light. Anderson manages to make shot-on-location look like shot-on-a-sound-stage; you’re amazed when a car drives off into the distance and doesn’t crash into a matte painting backdrop, but somehow just keeps going. The film locates itself in a gee-whiz Cold War fantasy, a mythical time where bright middle-schoolers design their own jet packs and particle beams and everyone has complete faith in the US military—and why shouldn’t they? They haven’t lost a war yet.

All of this makes for a perfect sandbox for Anderson to drop what may be the most impressive cast he’s yet worked with into. Wes stalwart Schwartzman takes the lead as a stoic pipe-smoking war photographer, with a “brainiac” son and a trio of elementary school triplets (who think they’re witches) in tow. Scarlett Johansson plays a movie star attracted to battered woman roles. Tom Hanks shows up as a grumpy grandpa (in a role that was probably originally written with in mind.) Steve Carrell is the solicitous local motel owner (beginning almost every sentence with “I understand.”) is an astronomer. is a mechanic. There are various-sized cameos by , , and, um, . Furthermore, a gaggle of students, parents, teachers, military personnel, singing cowboys, and others inhabit the hamlet, making up a real, if temporary, community. And yet, the stage never feels too crowded; everyone gets their moment to shine in this mosaic of comedy.

It plays like a quite usual, sophisticated, twee Anderson outing, except that it isn’t. In the first place, the artifice is doubled (or tripled), since the main story is, in fact, a play written by a Tennessee Williamsesque playwright (Edward Norton) and directed by an East Coast workaholic (Adrian Brody), whom we see at work developing the production. And we’re further introduced to these characters through a television documentary hosted by Brian Cranston (who occasionally, and amusingly, drifts into the theatrical production). The action occasionally shifts from the main story (in widescreen color) to the fictional background material (in black and white, Academy ratio). At about the film’s midpoint, Anderson inserts what may be the most audacious—and hilarious—scene he’s ever shot. (You might guess what the event is, but never in a million years would you guess the manner in which it happens.) And the third act goes especially bonkers, as the playwright explains that he wants the finale to be a case of the entire cast dreaming due to their shared cosmic experience, and enlists an actor’s studio to help stimulate his creativity. More fourth wall breaking follows, there’s a hoedown featuring a song that starts with the lyric “Dear alien, who art in Heaven,” and a repetitive chant at the climax flirts with the surreal. The film doesn’t always hang together, but the dialogue is razor sharp, the cast is magnetic, and the laughs are abundant. I don’t know if it’s Wes’ best movie, but it is his boldest and most consistently surprising.

Asteroid City doesn’t seem to know what it wants to say, and that is, it seems, what it wants to say. “I don’t understand the play,” Schwartzman complains, breaking character. The answer is that he doesn’t have to understand it. The author doesn’t. He just needs to act it.

The Asteroid City DVD/Blu-ray comes with a short making of featurette. We would not be surprised to see a more elaborate release down the line (the likes to publish every Anderson feature they can get their mitts on.)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The purest distillation of what this director brings to cinema, it’s beautiful to look at, surreal, nostalgic and funny in a weird, distanced way.”–Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: TONE-DEAF (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Richard Bates Jr.

FEATURING: Amanda Crew, Robert Patrick, Kim Delaney

PLOT: After losing her boyfriend and her job, young adult Olive takes a vacation by herself at an airbnb rental in the country; unfortunately, her landlord is a millennial-hating boomer with murder on his mind.

Still from Tone-Deaf (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A horror-comedy that’s allegedly a satire of generational conflict, Tone-Deaf is neither scary nor funny—and although it does get a little weird, it doesn’t get weird enough to overcome its other handicaps.

COMMENTS: For the record (and I don’t consider this a spoiler) the title refers to protagonist Olive’s literal tone-deafness, the source of a running joke about how she’s a terrible piano player. Since her parents and friends all tell her she’s a whiz on the ivories, she never figures out that she can’t play, despite the fact that her renditions sound only slightly better than a drunk cat crawling across the keyboard.

See the satire? Or is it too subtle?

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that, as opposed to deep-seated prejudices about race and sex, the present (and perennial) generational conflict is relatively genial and jokey: “you kids get off my lawn!,” “in my day we walked to school uphill—both ways.”[efn_note]This review was composed in early November, just before the “OK Boomer” meme really took off.[/efn_note] Although there was a brief “participation trophy” furor a few years back, in general, the ribbings oldsters give youngsters, and vice-versa, aren’t taken too seriously by either side. After all, the Boomers were the “Me Generation” that the “Greatest Generation” accused of being soft; for them to turn around and make the same claims about millennials is an absurd (if inevitable) example of history repeating itself. The Boomer-millennial clash just isn’t that serious or rancorous, so satirizing it isn’t bold or dangerous; in fact, it seems like a deflection to avoid addressing the real destructive partisan divide in today’s America. And, in the end, Tone-Deaf‘s screenplay refuses to firmly commit to either side, making us wonder what the point of the entire exercise was.

That lack of focus wouldn’t be as much of a problem if the jokes were funny. I think I chuckled once, during an unexpected deadpan cultural appropriation joke. But for the most part you see the jabs coming; they’re all telegraphed, far too obvious to catch you off guard. Heck, Harvey even breaks the fourth wall to rant about kids today, so you couldn’t accuse the script of trusting the audience to be smart enough to get the point. And yet, Tone-Deaf isn’t a complete misfire. Although the high concept misses the mark, there’s enough going on that the movie becomes watchable. Since a feature length film has a lot of time to fill between the time Olive checks in and Harvey tries to forcibly check her out, the script has to find something else for the slasher and victim to do while waiting for the final showdown. That means some unexpected plot turns, including a Tinder date in a cowboy bar and a car wash that sells drugs. Demented killer Robert Patrick’s performance can be fun, in a crusty old fart swinging a tire iron kind of way. The best parts of the film are the left-field ian touches. Harvey has a series of psycho-sexual nightmares featuring art-installation models in blue latex body paint that are funnier parodies than anything else in the script. And a cameo by —looking a bit like the Amazing Criswell lit by a multicolored strobe light during an acid trip—is a highlight (the man’s a real pro). These bits suggest a better, wilder B-movie hiding somewhere inside this misfire.

The filmmakers had to know from the outset that reviewers were going to dub this a “Tone-Deaf satire.” (It’s probably a good thing they didn’t name it Ham-Fist, although that title would have lent itself to even more accurate critical quips).

Richard Bates, Jr. made a minor splash in the indie horror world with his 2012 debut, Excision, but has since failed to follow up on that success. Tone-Deaf won’t revive his fading reputation, but there are enough shiny baubles buried under the dross to make us not want to give up on him just yet.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Tone-Deaf’ is devilishly hilarious for the first two acts, diving into murky psychological waters to trigger some spooky and surreal stuff for genre fans, but also retaining a defined sense of humor, with amusing amplification of common generational issues, having a good time poking a stick at people of all ages.”–Brian Orndorf, Blu-ray.com (contemporaneous)

3*. SINGAPORE SLING (1990)

Singapore sling: O anthropos pou agapise ena ptoma

AKA Singapore Sling: The Man Who Loved a Corpse

“You know the feeling of something half remembered,
Of something that never happened, yet you recall it well;
You know the feeling of recognizing someone
That you’ve never met as far as you could tell…”–Johnny Mercer, “Laura”

Recommended (with caution)

DIRECTED BY: Nikos Nikolaidis

FEATURING: Meredyth Herold, Panos Thanassoulis,

PLOT: A detective is searching for a missing girl, Laura, a supposed murder victim with whom he was in love and who he believes is still alive. Suffering from an unexplained bullet wound, he follows the trail to a villa where a psychotic “Daughter” and an equally insane “Mother” live in a sick relationship, hiring servants whom they later kill. When the enfeebled detective stumbles to their door, the two women capture him, dub him “Singapore Sling” after a cocktail recipe they find in his pocket, and use him in their sadomasochistic sex games.

Still from Singapore Sling (1990)

BACKGROUND:

  • Much of the plot references ‘s classic thriller/film noir, Laura, including prominent use of the famous theme song.
  • Director Nikos Nikolaidis is well-known in Greece and is sometimes considered the godfather of the “Greek Weird Wave” films (best known in the work of ). Singapore Sling is his only work that is widely available outside of Greece.
  • Singapore Sling was one of the top three vote getters in 366 Weird Movies first Apocryphally Weird movie poll, making it one of the most popular weird movies left off the 366 Weird Movies canon.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Warning: there are a lot of images in Singapore Sling which you would probably like to forget, but will be unable to. Among the least objectionable (believe it or not) is Daughter’s memory (?) of losing her virginity to “Father”: he appears as a bandage-swathed mummy.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Earrings on organs; mummy incest

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Imagine a cross between Laura and Salo, as directed by a young dabbling in pornography, and you’ll have some idea of what you’re in for—but it’s slightly weirder than that.


Short clip from Singapore Sling (1990) (in Greek)

COMMENTS: Singapore Sling blatantly references Otto Preminger’s Continue reading 3*. SINGAPORE SLING (1990)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: LAKE MICHIGAN MONSTER (2019)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ryland Brickson Cole Tews, Beulah Peters, Erick West, Daniel Long

PLOT: Having lost his father to the claws of the terrible “Lake Michigan Monster,” Captain Seafield assembles a crew of specialists to exact his revenge.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: This movie is very dumb, in a good way, and very derivative, in a good way. Tews creates a scratchy, black and white world à la Guy Maddin in a clever, mindless romp where every rule of narrative is bent as the story crescendos to a dizzying municipal-political climax.

COMMENTSIn the spirit of the movie, this is a DIY review. Feel free to cut and paste the sections below however suits your mood.

Disclaimer: In no way have I been remunerated for the views expressed herein. Fact is, they’d have to more than double the film’s budget to buy my good graces.

Good: There is a jokesy doppelgänger of Guy Maddin at work in Lake Michigan Monster. Ryland Tews captures the Canadian auteur’s aesthetic—grainy black and white, mythic proportions, and the idolization of a city (though not Winnipeg for this go-around)—and puts it to work for an episodic comedy that would seem ramshackle if it weren’t so charming and also somehow pinned to what just about passes as a story arc for the good Captain Seafielding.

Plot: Assembling a mercenary crew comprising a weapons expert, a N.A.V.Y. drop-out, and a “sonar individual”, Captain Seafielding (Ryland Tews) hopes to hunt and destroy the titular monster that he blames for the murder of his father. With half-baked schemes (à la “Nauty Lady” and other pun-driven titles), he fails again and again until he is abandoned by his hirelings and is forced to summon a ghost army (found, incidentally, in an Episcopal cathedral). After losing all his henchman, worldly and otherwise, he must complete his quest mano-a-beasto.

Weird: Lake Michigan Monster is merely 78 minutes long, but a whole world and mythology is haphazardly crammed into each and every nook. Seafielding begins each outing with a magical, animated map of the action, on which designations for each crew member zip around according to his mad whim. The fourth wall is battered to dust as Seafielding, in character, begins to dismantle the narrative shell that keeps the audience separate from his machinations; we become very much the accomplice in his silly work as the movie goes on. To boot, there are the kind of quips and asides that we’d expect more from popular television.

Opening or Closing: So what is it like to watch this movie? Unless you have some very creative film buddies, it’d be hard to get closer to the core of the crafting experience. Mind you, this isn’t just some dumb evolution of a movie into a movie about movies. This is just some dumb s̶e̶a̶ lake-faring yarn that feels like it’s being told to you live over a glass of bourbon, or whatever that type of whiskey it is you find in Scotland. But there is a gloriousness to its apparent idiocy. No real actors, no fabricated sets, but one heckuva a closing sea shanty await you in this wild and whimsical outing.

You can also listen to our interview with some of the gang responsible for Lake Michigan Monster.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Tews and company have crafted something unique here, an absurdist fever-dream that looks (and sounds) like little else.” -Matt Wild, Milwaukee Record (contemporaneous)