Tag Archives: Criterion collection

CAPSULE: THE BIG SHAVE (FROM “SCORSESE SHORTS”)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Peter Bernuth

PLOT: What starts out as a pleasant morning shave soon goes horribly wrong, turning into a bloody spectacle of self-mutilation as a man finds himself unable to stop shaving.

COMMENTS: I first saw The Big Shave on YouTube a few years ago, after hearing about American Boy (another film included on Criterion’s new “Scorsese Shorts” collection) via , who used a story from that film as inspiration for the adrenaline injection scene in Pulp Fiction. American Boy, a monologue film featuring Stephen Prince (a friend of Scorsese’s who had played a bit part in his feature film Taxi Driver), showed me that there was a side to Martin Scorsese that I never seen before, and encouraged me to dig deeper into Marty’s back catalog. The Big Shave, a gory allegory about the Vietnam War, is unlike anything else in Scorsese’s filmography, and left a mark on my memory that I’ve never been able to shake. Thanks to the Criterion Collection, The Big Shave, along with American Boy and three other early Scorsese short films, is now available to revisit in gloriously bloody HD.

To most cinephiles these days, Scorsese might seem like an untouchable symbol of classic Hollywood, one of the last quintessential “great” filmmakers, whose new films are treated with solemn reverence and his old films spoken of in hushed tones as some of the greatest of all times. But Mean Streets wasn’t his first foray into filmmaking, not by a long shot. The real story started 10 years earlier, when Scorsese was a film student at NYU. There he made two award-winning student films: What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? and It’s Not Just You, Murray. In a way, these two films reflect a spirit similar to what a lot of young film students were doing at the time. They’re blatantly irreverent and intentionally bizarre, with a gleeful determination to create a new way of making films inspired by the French New Wave.

However, unlike these fairly innocent student short films, The Big Shave doesn’t just set out to toy with the viewer’s mind, it aims to get under their skin, peeling it back to reveal what lies beneath. Had it been made in a different era, any number of meanings might be extracted from it, but seeing that it was a product of the late 1960s, it’s difficult to see it as anything other than a commentary on the self-destructive nature of the US military’s involvement in Vietnam. It even has an alternate title, Viet ‘67—but that might have made it too obvious.

It starts by establishing its setting: a sparkling white bathroom filled with sparkling silver fixtures. The bath faucets, the toilet paper holder, the sink—all are shown in pristine close-ups that establish Continue reading CAPSULE: THE BIG SHAVE (FROM “SCORSESE SHORTS”)

CAPSULE: UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD (1991)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Rüdiger Vogler, ,

PLOT: A disillusioned young woman follows a mysterious stranger across the globe, only to become transfixed by a device which allows the user to record and replay their own dreams.

COMMENTS: Usually the term “Director’s Cut” suggests that a film was extended by 10 minutes, or even an hour, from its initial form by restoring footage left on the cutting floor due to studio pressure. But in the case of Until the End of the World, it meant doubling the film’s original running time from two and a half hours to almost five. With this film, German auteur Wim Wenders intended to make “the ultimate road movie,” building on a career of road movies such as Kings of the Road and Paris, Texas. In other words, he set out to make his magnum opus. Now, thanks to the Criterion Collection, his vision can finally be seen as originally intended.

So how does it hold up? Well, it’s an improvement on the original truncated version, which felt rushed and confusing, but it might not be the masterpiece that Wenders intended. Where the original version was two incomplete films haphazardly cobbled together, the five-hour version is essentially two films in one. The film no longer feels incomplete, but it remains uneven. The first half is a breakneck journey through eight countries. This is the ostensible “road movie” portion of the film, although it feels a bit rushed even stretched out to two hours instead of one.

In this section, we follow a beautiful woman named Claire (Solveig Dommartin) who becomes obsessed with an elusive man (William Hurt) and chases him from one country to another. There are a lot of side characters, most notably Claire’s writer husband Eugene (Sam Neill) and Mr. Winter (Rüdiger Vogler), an inept but poetically inclined private detective who Claire meets in Berlin. In the five-hour version, we get to know the characters a lot better. Eugene’s pensive narration gives the viewer considerable insight into Claire’s psychological state, illuminating the reasons behind her tireless search for a man that she doesn’t know anything about.

But while the character development may be improved in the long version, Until the End of the World still doesn’t feel like much of a road movie. The characters seem to beam from one place to another. There are brief scenes on airplanes, trains and boats, but very little driving—the thing that defined Wenders’ classic road movies from earlier in his career. Very little seems to happen between destinations; almost all of the characters’ crucial conversations and revelations happen when their paths align for a brief moment in a fixed location.

However, the characters’ journeys do lead to a particular final destination which brings them all together: Central Australia. Just like Continue reading CAPSULE: UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD (1991)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SAVAGES (1972)

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Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: James Ivory

FEATURING: Lewis Stadlen, Anne Francine, Ultra Violet, Sam Waterston, and many more of approximately equal importance

PLOT: A tribe of “mud people” find a croquet ball, follow it to an abandoned mansion, put on the clothes they find, host a dinner party, then fall back into savagery.

Still from Savages (1972)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Carefully structured but thoroughly strange from start to finish, Savages is a unique experiment from an unlikely source. Part mock-anthropological study, part absurd satire, the movie is made in the spirit of and of American underground filmmakers, but with the high level of craftsmanship imposed by the Merchant/Ivory team. It’s an oddball outlier in an Oscar-bait canon.

COMMENTS: Savages is a movie that’s almost as strange for who made it as for what it is. When you think of Merchant/Ivory productions, you think of their run from 1985 to 1993 when they produced three massively praised historical costume dramas: A Room with a View, Howard’s End, and Remains of the Day. Watching these staid and starchy dramas aimed at audiences packed with little old ladies, you might never guess that the filmmakers were once young and willing to experiment with movies about stone age tribespeople who morph overnight into well-heeled gentlemen and ladies who throw lavish dinner parties and do the Charleston before spontaneously reverting back to savagery. Movies with nudity and lesbian sex and transvestites and a Superstar in the cast. And yet, strange as it seems, Merchant and Ivory were young and foolish once, and Savages exists.

It begins in the primeval forests (of upstate New York), where a tribe of “mud people” goes about their business of gathering narcotic leaves, kidnapping females from other tribes, and forced ritual lovemaking with the high priestess. These scenes are all silent, with explanatory intertitles and an eerie soundtrack of jungle drums, pan flutes, and bird calls, heavy on the reverb. Following the mysterious appearance of a croquet ball, the tribe makes its way to an abandoned manor house, explores, and after licking a few portraits on the walls, put on the clothes they find in the wardrobe (sometimes getting the genders wrong). Flash forward, and suddenly we’re in color and the cast is speaking English—although dialogue is often fancifully absurd and scarcely more illuminating than the grunts of the mud tribe. (The funniest bit in the whole movie is the ersatz-Broadway musical number”Steppin’ on a Spaniel,” with lyrics like “Close your eyes and give those guys a big smooch, right now/As you’re jumpin’ up and down and steppin’ on a pooch, bow wow!”) They throw a dinner party, complete with gossip and scheming and affairs. They drink too much after dinner, and take drugs, and have sex, and gradually their little society breaks down, until they all pour out onto the lawn at dawn, whacking drunkenly at croquet balls before shedding their clothes and meandering back into the forest to start anew.

Merchant/Ivory here mock the same species of bourgeois drawing room manners they will later romanticize in their Oscar-nominated features. Civilization is a farce; the tribespeople play the same social roles as they did in the jungle, but now with a veneer of sophistication. The enslaved woman serves as maid to the others, a young warrior becomes a bully, and the couple who were always shamelessly humping in the forest are now slipping away every chance they get for illicit assignations. Civilization is presented as a cyclical proposition, rising and then declining back into savagery (as things get turbulent near the end, we are tempted to place a pin in the timeline with a marker reading “you are here.”) It’s all very abstract, but there’s a recurring theme of imitation: the intellectual character is obsessed with an architectural model in the drawing room and how it recreates reality, only smaller, while the limping man tells a story but is unable to answer questions about it because he has merely memorized a book entry verbatim. The savages act out the manners of the civilized without understanding the purpose behind the traditions they carry out.

If there’s one big complaint with Savages, it’s that the scenario drags on far too long. The early reels, in the forest primeval, are the most interesting; a conscientious editor could have cut the rest down by fifteen minutes or even a half hour without doing any damage to the overall effect.

The film was made specifically to take advantage of an abandoned manor house location; Ivory thought up the savagery-to-civilization scenario and then hired a couple of writers (New Yorker essayist George W. S. Trow and National Lampoon‘s Michael O’Donoghue) to pen a script (which was still unfinished by the time the cameras started rolling). The Criterion Collection released Savages as part of their Merchant/Ivory collection. The disc includes an interview with the producer and director alongside the pair’s 1972 BBC documentary The Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of Civilization.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“No wit, no thought, no surrealist flair, just vacuous decoration.”–Time Out London

(This movie was nominated for review by Brian, who explained “Don’t be put off by its Merchant/Ivory parentage; this was quite early in their career and one of the main brains behind it was the late weird Michael O’Donoghue, the famed Mr. Mike of National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live fame.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: EATING RAOUL (1982)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Paul Bartel, Robert Beltran

PLOT: An urban middle-class couple notices they live in a world where they’re surrounded by expendable idiots—so they take to robbing and killing them in order to finance their modest dreams.

Still from Eating Raoul (1982)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Every weirdophile has seen this movie and remembers it as a satirical cannibal-comedy, quirky but not on the memorably weird end. It isn’t until you re-watch it fresh and recall all the throw-away details—the ketchup on the milkshake, the wine bottle plushie doll in Paul’s bed, the Doggie King dog food commercial—that you appreciate the weirdness bursting from the seams in this unique oddball masterpiece.

COMMENTS: Eating Raoul was too ahead of its time. You can hardly find a weird movie fan who doesn’t love this movie, and yet it still gets listed near the bottom of great black comedies. Now, we’re enthusiastic about and Matt Stone, the , and even the alumni getting recognized as the heralds of modern black comedy. But this movie opens with Paul Bartel getting bitched out by his liquor store boss for not selling the right wines. He is interrupted by an armed robber, shoots said robber dead (deadpan: “Mr. Cray, you killed him!”) and then goes right back to chewing out Paul Bartel’s ass. Next scene: Mary Woronov is a nurse who goads a horndog patient into finishing his pureed slop hospital food with the promise of hot nursey time, only to switch off with a burly male sidekick for an enema party. None of us filthy sinners love this golden apple enough, and that is why we are not worthy of it.

Our star couple is Paul and Mary Bland, two Hollywood middle-classers who are exasperated, stuck in the me-generation late-1970s swingers era while wanting nothing to do with them. They hate the disco party freaks almost as much as they hate being too broke to pay their bills and open the restaurant of their dreams. When one of these swingers ends up accidentally dead at their hands, a connection between the two issues takes shape, and the Blands decide to turn tricks, seducing swingers to their apartment. Said swingers are expecting a filthy payoff, only to meet the business end of a frying pan to the head. Tutored by “Doris the Dominatrix,” who shares her tricks of the trade in between spoon-feeding her baby, the Blands place an ad in the local kink mag, and the suckers bite right away. Might as well take the bread in their wallet, then. Just toss the bodies down the furnace chute, who’s going to miss them? It’s not like any of these tongue-waggling perverts had parents or anything.

But they do eventually meet one other individual with a clue, Raoul, who runs a suspiciously cheap locksmith service and moonlights as a Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: EATING RAOUL (1982)

361. TRUE STORIES (1986)

Recommended

“It’s like ’60 Minutes’ on acid.”–David Byrne describing True Stories

“What time is it? No time to look back.” –The Narrator, True Stories

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: David Byrne, John Goodman, Swoosie Kurtz, Spalding Gray

PLOT: An eager outsider (Byrne) visits the fictional town of Virgil, Texas as they prepare for the state’s 150th anniversary with a “Celebration of Specialness.” Acting as narrator and tour guide, he meets various folks around the area, learning about their relationships, their work at the computer manufacturing plant, and their personal hobbies. The most prominent of the “true stories” is would-be country singer Louis Fyne’s search for love.

Still from True Stories (1986)

BACKGROUND:

  • After directing several early Talking Heads videos and learning technical aspects of filmmaking from when assisting on the editing of the Heads’ concert film Stop Making Sense, David Byrne wanted to try his hands at making his own narrative feature. Though he knew he wanted to do something involving music, he first created hundreds of drawings of scenes and characters, thinking purely in visual terms. He then added a story with the help of Stephen Tobolowsky and Beth Henley (and some advice from Joan Tewkesbury), inspired by tabloid stories from the Weekly World News as well as the landscape and communities of small town Texas.
  • Though the film is very much Byrne’s baby, he was collaborative in his working method: he and cinematographer Ed Lachman studied recent American photobooks for inspiration and together established a specific visual style centered around flat landscapes and balanced compositions. Actors Jo Harvey Allen (“The Lying Woman”) and Spalding Gray (“Earl Culver”) ad-libbed many of their lines, and most of the talent show and parade were real-life local performers. Byrne’s then-wife Adelle Lutz created the larger-than-life costumes for the shopping mall fashion show.
  • Byrne sought to showcase the talents and creativity of so-called “consumers,” those whom elitists would shut out of the larger cultural conversation because they didn’t have the “right” background or status.
  • American photographer William Eggleston, who is known for elevating color photography as an artistic medium in the 1970s, was invited to the set by Byrne, as his work had inspired the look of the production. Eggleston produced a photo series while visiting the areas of Texas where they were filming and it was released as part of a (now out of print) book featuring the movie’s script and related ephemera.
  • While the album “True Stories” features Talking Heads versions of the soundtrack songs, and “Sounds from True Stories” includes instrumental music from the film, Byrne had always wanted the original cast recording to be released in full. Only with the Criterion release of the film in November 2018 has the album finally been made available.
  • True Stories is Alex Kittle’s staff pick for a Certified Weird movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Over an idiosyncratic family dinner, Spalding Gray provides an enthusiastic monologue about the problems of modern life, using various colorful entrees and sides as visual aides for his explanations. As the plates inexplicably light up and the music of a string quartet builds, Gray, in his heavy Rhode Island accent, expounds upon the merging of work and play, and the rapidly developing tech industry in Virgil, ending the speech in a dimly lit family tableaux as he and his children bow their heads in prayer.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Avant-garde mall fashion show; conspiracy theory sermon at the Church of the SubGenius; David Byrne aimlessly talking to the audience while driving around Texas

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: His goofy, gangly persona—so out of place in the rural Texas setting—is already weird enough, but really Byrne is exposing the weirdness of everyday life, with eccentric characters, loud costumes, eclectic musical numbers, and a lot of fourth wall breaking. It’s a strange merging of artistic experimentation and down-to-earth themes; the combined effect is both charming and bizarre.


Original trailer for True Stories (1986)

COMMENTS: After imparting a brief overview of the history of Continue reading 361. TRUE STORIES (1986)

360. COME AND SEE (1985)

Idi i smotri

“And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.”–Revelation 6:7-8

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Elem Klimov

FEATURING: Aleksey Kravechenko, Olga Mironova, Liubomiras Laucevicius

PLOT: Florya, a boy of about 14, digs in a field with a playmate, hoping to find a buried rifle so he can join the Belorussian partisans fighting against occupying Nazis. He finds one, and is soon roughly whisked away by soldiers to the forest campground, leaving his sobbing mother behind. When the troops go on patrol he is left alone to guard the camp, but after the Luftwaffe bomb the area he and a female companion return to Florya’s village, where he finds the war has devastated everything his once knew.

Still from Come and See (1985)

BACKGROUND:

  • Based on a memoir of a teenage Belarussian partisan, Come and See was commissioned to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over the Nazis.
  • Director Elem Klimov, still a relatively young man at 52 when he completed Come and See, chose to retire from filmmaking after its release, saying that he could not top this achievement.
  • Come and See is included in Steven Schneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” and tied for 30th (among directors) and 154th (among critics) in “Sight and Sound”‘s 2012 Greatest Movie poll, among other accolades and honors.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It could be the closeup of Aleksey Kravechenko’s prematurely aged face at the end. Or the S.S. skull-on-a-stick the refugees turn into an effigy of Hitler. For me, however, the most surprising and unforgettable image was the nightmare of Florya and Glasha sloshing through a muddy bog in desperation, fleeing from a horror they will never be able to outrun.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Forest Charleston; cow in a firefight; kill baby Hitler?

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Come and See’s flirtations with surrealism nudge it into the “weird” category, and then its sheer grueling intensity carries it to “must see” status. That recommendation should perhaps come with a warning that, despite containing nothing particularly graphic, this movie’s sheer aura of evil is likely to disturb you on a deep level. This is not a shock-for-shock’s-sake experience, however, but an honest, unflinching dip into the subconscious of an adolescent boy thrust into a horrific situation initially beyond his comprehension—one which he tragically comes to understand all too well.


DVD trailer for Come and See

COMMENTS: Come and See is war movie as horror movie. It is notable for its immersive intensity. It unrelentingly assaults your sensibilities, as sadistically eager to strip away your innocence as it is to Continue reading 360. COME AND SEE (1985)

335. THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (1974)

Weirdest!

Recommended

Le fantôme de la liberté 

“Chance governs all things. Necessity, which is far from having the same purity, comes only later. If I have a soft spot for one of my movies, it would be for The Phantom of Liberty, because it tries to work out just this theme.”–Luis Buñuel

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Hélène Perdrière, Pierre-François Pistorio, , François Maistre, , Pascale Audret, , Adriana Asti, many others

PLOT: The Phantom of Liberty has no straightforward plot, but moves between vignettes through various linking mechanisms. The opening, about Napoleon’s troops desecrating a church, turns out to be a story being read by a nanny; the child she is watching is given “dirty” photographs by a suspicious lurker, then her father has strange dreams which he relates to his doctor, whose nurse interrupts their conversation to ask for time off to visit her sick father, and so on… Subsequent stories involve the nurse spending a night at an inn with strange characters, a professor who lectures to a group of gendarmes, a “missing” girl, a sniper killing random pedestrians, and a police prefect who gets a call from beyond the grave.

Still from The Phantom of Liberty (1974)

BACKGROUND:

  • The title was suggested by a line from the Communist Manifesto: “…a spectre [translated in French as fantôme] is haunting Europe, the spectre of Communism…” Substituting “liberty” for “Communism” is typical of Phantom‘s process of reversing our expectations to shock us out of our complacency.
  • The film was co-written with Buñuel‘s late-career collaborator , the fifth of the six scripts they wrote together. They devised the scenario by telling each other their dreams each morning.
  • This was Buñuel‘s second-to-last film, in a career that lasted nearly fifty years. He was 74 at the time of release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The famous toilet/dinner reversal scene, which, while not at all explicit, is one of the few moments that still has the power to shock modern viewers, simply on the strength of its revolutionary idea.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Jealous statue; emu in the night; commode party

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Angry statues, wandering emus, gambling monks, a celebrity sniper, and assorted perverts jostle up against each other in Luis Buñuel‘s penultimate filmed dream, perhaps the most purely Surrealist effort of his late career.

Short clip from The Phantom of Liberty (in French)

COMMENTS: Working with , Luis Buñuel began his career with a cannonball to the gut of rationality, the incendiary eye-slitting classic Un Chien Andalou. It was a barrage of disconnected Continue reading 335. THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (1974)