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*23. JULIET OF THE SPIRITS (1965)

Giulietta degli spiriti

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“I remember I had some exaltation about color. I see colors not like they are normally – we see colors in the object. In this case, I saw colors, just as they are, detached from the object. I had for the first time the feeling of the presence of the color in a detached way.”–Federico Fellini

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Mario Pisu

PLOT: Juliet, a wealthy housewife, has reason to suspect her husband is cheating on her. She has always been attuned to the spirit world, and after a seance she begins seeing visions and hearing voices; one of the whispering entities tells her that her neighbor, the strange, sexually liberated Suzy, will be her teacher. As her marriage disintegrates, her visions become harder to distinguish from reality, until Juliet snaps and banishes the spirits.

Still from Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

BACKGROUND:

  • Fellini’s first feature-length color film (although his short segment for the 1962 anthology film Boccaccio ’70 was in color.)
  • Fellini took LSD (in a clinical setting) for inspiration in making this film. He found it “a little disappointing.”
  • Some of the biographical details of onscreen Juliet’s stories come from Giulietta Massina’s own experiences in her marriage to Fellini. The house seen in the film is the couple’s real house.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Juliet of the Spirits parades a host of bizarrely costumed Felliniesque grotesques across the screen in its 130 minutes, but aside from the perpetually smiling eye-of-the-storm Masina, the one who makes the biggest impression is buxom, bodacious Suzy (Sandra Milo). In one of the movie’s unforgettable scenes, she disrobes (offscreen) in the blink of an eye to demonstrate one of the hedonistic accoutrements in her bordello-like haven: a slide winding directly from her bedroom to her personal post-coital swimming pool.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Hermaphrodite swami reception; faceless purple nuns

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Like his previous 8 1/2, Juliet of the Spirits is a Fellini trip where dreams and fantasies—the more baroque and colorful, the better—intrude into reality as a way to explore the psychology of the film’s protagonist.


Original trailer for Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

COMMENTS: Juliet of the Spirits is transitional Fellini—most obviously, in updating the director’s palette to the full color spectrum, Continue reading *23. JULIET OF THE SPIRITS (1965)

CAPSULE: SYMBIOSPYCHOTAXIPLASM: TAKE ONE (1968)

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DIRECTED BY: William Greaves

FEATURING: William Greaves, Don Fellows, Patricia Ree Gilbert

PLOT: Director William Greaves hires two actors to perform a short melodramatic dialogue in Central Park, then has another camera crew film his process of directing them, while yet another crew films the second crew.

Still from SYMBIOPSYCHOTAXIPLASM: Take One (1968)

COMMENTS:If you ever wished a movie consisted of all behind-the-scenes footage and no real content, here you go. William Greaves’ conceit is to repeatedly film a one-scene stage test for a feature that he never intended to make. As he guides the actors through their melodramatic line readings, a camera crew films his direction; a second camera crew films the first. They also film anything that happens on set, whether it be a crowd of gawkers, a homeless veteran who wanders out of the woods, or a policeman checking to see if they have permits to film in Central Park. Greaves wears the same distinctive green mesh shirt through the entire shoot, making it appear as if all the action takes place on a single day. Every now and then, the movie switches to split screens to show the crew and actors activities from different angles, and funky jazz (from Miles Davis’ classic “In a Silent Way” album) punctuates the action. If the act of observing a thing changes it, as the physicists say, then what does the act of observing oneself observing oneself do?

All this sounds like it could be unbearably self-conscious art exercise from stoned hippies, but it’s unexpectedly fascinating. It’s the “coup” staged by the crew, who take it upon themselves to film their own spirited private discussions where they wonder what the hell Greaves is up to, and why he seems to be playing at being incompetent, that ignites the film.  In 1968, they’re not a crew of jaded postmodernists: they sincerely discusses questions of reflexivity and artificiality versus reality, and try to find deeper meaning in the lines which they insist are drivel. They aren’t defensively ironic, as the tone would be were such a project made today; they are unafraid of seeming pretentious. This layer of revolt is essential to the film, supplying conflict and texture. And the viewer never knows if Greaves instigated (or even partly scripted) the crew’s spirited bull sessions, or simply lucked out when they took it upon itself to supply what becomes the most interesting part of the film. You wonder if Greaves is pulling some kind of Andy Kaufman-styled cinematic prank.

Shot in 1968, this movie was not exhibited until 1971, but slowly grew its legend through rare festival and museum screenings, gaining a series of influential champions among fellow filmmakers. This movement culminates in Symbiospsychotaxipalsm: Take 2 1/2, a sequel released in 2005 with the backing fans of and , which is included on the Criterion Collection disc. As far from a standalone feature as is possible to imagine, 2 1/2 starts with 30 minutes of unused footage from the first movie featuring two of the actors , then, after some reflections from the director and crew about the project, fast-forwards the story to see what has happened to these characters 35 years later (answer: they are still doing screen tests, and Greaves is still filming everything). The sequel is a worthwhile supplement, but mostly it serves to highlight the lightning-in-a-bottle success of the original. Youth has faded and the magic can only be remembered, not recreated.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a movie-within-a-movie at a time when most of the meta-cinematic action was coming from Andy Warhol and Jean-Luc Godard. But Greaves goes one better. He’s doing Godard doing Cassavetes.”–Wesley Morris, The Boston Globe (2006 revival)

(This movie was nominated for review by Russa03. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE ELEMENT OF CRIME (1984)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Michael Elphick, Meme Lai, Esmond Knight, Jerold Wells

PLOT: Under hypnosis, a detective recalls a case where he tried to catch a serial killer by retracing his steps using investigatory techniques pioneered by his mentor in his book “The Element of Crime.”

Still from The Element of Crime (1984)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The Element of Crime tells a (literally) hypnotic story soaked in doom and moral decay, with the film looking like it’s lit by the smoldering embers of an immolated Europe.

COMMENTS: Although he had made a 57-minute student film previously, The Element of Crime is Lars von Trier’s first true feature and his first commercial work. Though the atmosphere is narcotic, the work shows the energy of youth—the bold choice of shooting in an almost entirely orange palette being the most obvious example of the youthful preference for style over substance. The film does not show many hints of the shock provocateur von Trier would later become, nor is his edge of Jacobean cruelty fully honed yet, but those qualities are not missed in this dreamy mood piece.

Von Trier leans on noirish motifs, putting his own strange spin on them: a monochrome palette (jaundiced instead of shadowy), voiceover narration (sometimes supplied by the hypnotist), rain (constant downpours of almost parodic quantities), a femme fatale, and moral slippage (our detective’s mentor, Osborne, has clearly gone mad, and we justifiably fear that our hero may really become the killer he emulates). Other concerns are new: as the detective becomes more obsessed with the algorithmic process of retracing the steps of the predator, the police establishment grows increasingly fascist—suspects are beaten, and the police shave their heads to resemble their leader, Kramer, who prefers issuing edicts through a bullhorn. The rise of brute force, as opposed to the failed intellectualism of Osborne’s system?

The hero, Fisher, splashes through a world of constant rain and puddles. He is submerged; in his memory, in his subconscious, and in the procedure of entering a psychotic killer’s mindset, a procedure that threatens to pull him under. It’s no wonder that Fisher’s last words in the film are “you can wake me up now. Are you there?” It’s the plea of a man drowning in his own mind, the fished who no longer believes himself the fisher.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…here’s a chance to catch a master of bizarre lighting and film stock experimentation at an early point in his career… Unsettling and odd, it’s the perfect film for a dreary, rainy day.”–Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle

(This movie was nominated for review by future 366 contributor Caleb Moss, who said the story “seems to be a mix between Naked Lunch and Brazil.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: ONIBABA (1964)

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DIRECTED BY: Kaneto Shindo

FEATURINGNobuko Otawa, Jitsuko Yoshimura,

PLOTTwo women make a living luring passing samurai to their death in a large pit and selling their belongings, until the return of a lusty neighbor leads them headfirst into a deadly conflict of sexual passion and supernatural punishment.

COMMENTS: Anyone familiar with Japanese films from the 1950s and ‘60s knows that the samurai film was very popular in those days. But if your image of Japanese horror is The Ring and The Grudge, you might be surprised to know that Japanese horror films of earlier eras also skewed towards the samurai genre (when not of the Godzilla variety, that is). This isn’t the samurai film of and Toshiro Mifune, though. Onibaba takes place in an even more distant era of Japanese history, some time around the 14th century, during the Warring States era, which found samurai generals leading groups of conscripted farmers waging endless wars on behalf of various emperors and warlords.

The story goes like this: an older woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her young daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) live in the middle of a vast susuki grass field, awaiting the return of her son and unable to farm because of bad weather and the lack of men in the area. To make ends meet, they ambush passing soldiers stranded in the tall grass and kill them for their belongings, disposing of the bodies in a deep dark hole. One day, a neighbor (Kei Sato) returns from the war, bearing news of the son’s death. Before long, he makes advances towards the dead man’s wife, infuriating her mother-in-law as well as a ghostly spirit who rises from the tall grass at night.

Except for that last part, this might not sound much like horror. To be fair though, Onibaba is not so much a fright film as it is an erotic drama with supernatural undertones. The sexual passion arising between the young man and woman is elemental, like the tall grass that fills the Cinemascope frame and dwarfs the three main characters. While scenes involving the evil demon who appears to punish the two lovers can be hair-raising, ultimately it’s the grass that makes Onibaba such a strange and compelling experience. Depending on the moment, it can look like ripples in a shallow pond, flowing hair, a raging fire, a cage, or a bird’s wings.  You experience the isolation of the characters in a way that is tactile and sensual. Feelings of sexual desire and fear take on a primitive intensity, as Japanese taiko drums thunder in the background with threatening urgency.

Adding to the film’s mystique, the cast and crew lived in makeshift huts in a remote field while making this film, with contracts that required them to stay on location for the duration of the shoot or forfeit their pay. The finished film reflects the isolation and frustration resulting from these conditions, with the actors expressing their characters’ desires with a physicality atypical for Japanese cinema: rolling around in the grass like dogs in heat, grinding their bodies against wooden poles, and attacking their samurai prey like wild animals. This makes for an unusually intense film about sexual desire and spiritual beliefs in a more primitive era of humanity, with a ghostly and unsettling atmosphere that perfectly evokes the fears you might experience if you lived your entire existence in an all-encompassing sea of grass.

Onibaba has recently received an upgrade to its previous Criterion Collection release from 2004, a new Blu-ray edition which retains most of the special features from the original DVD (including an interview with director Kaneta Shindo and on-set footage from the shoot), along with a new HD restoration and a 2001 commentary featuring Shindo and actors Kei Sato and Jitsuko Yoshimura. If you’ve never seen this Japanese horror classic, there’s never been a better time to remedy that situation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The director’s brooding tale is abetted by Hiyomi Kuroda’s cloudy, low-key photography and Hikaru Kuroda’s properly weird background musical score. But despite Mr. Shindo’s obvious striving for elemental, timeless drama, it is simply sex that is the most impressive of the hungers depicted here.”–A.H. Weiler, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

*19. MIRROR (1975)

Zerkalo

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“For Proust the concept of time is more important than time itself. For Russians that’s not an issue. We Russians have to plead our case against time. With authors who wrote prose based on childhood memories, like Tolstoy, Garshin, and many others, it’s always an attempt to atone for the past, always a form of repentance.” –Andrei Tarkovsky

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Margarita Terekhova, Ignat Daniltsev, Filipp Yankovskiy, voices of Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy and Arseny Tarkovsky

PLOT: Alexei’s life story is told through jumbled flashbacks and dreams that mainly involve his mother. Abandoned by his father, he spent his youth in a remote cabin with his mother and siblings. He grows up to have a child of his own, but his relationship with the boy’s mother is only cordial, and he’s grown apart from his own mother.

Still from Mirror [Zerkalo] (1975)

BACKGROUND:

  • Originally conceiving the film as a memoir about his own childhood memories of WWII, but gradually adding in elements from his later life, Tarkovsky began work on this story as early as 1964.
  • The poetry heard in the film is written and read by Arseny Tarkovsky, Andrei’s father. Andrei’s mother appears as herself in the film.
  • Tarkovsky reportedly made 32 edits of the film, complaining that none of them worked, before settling on this as the definitive version.
  • The Soviet authorities refused to allow Mirror to screen at Cannes.
  • Mirror ranked #19 in Sight & Sound‘s Critics’ Poll and #9 in the Director’s Poll in 2012.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Maria floating in a dream while a dove flutters above her.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Apparition history lesson; levitating mom

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Mirror is an intensely personal, extremely diffused meditation on the meaning of life from one of cinema’s greatest artists. Although insanely difficult, many cinephiles find it intensely moving as an accumulation of individual images that flow like finely crafted verses of surrealistic poetry.


Restoration trailer for Mirror [Zerkalo]

COMMENTS: If you enjoy being confused, jump into Mirror with no Continue reading *19. MIRROR (1975)

CAPSULE: TOUKI BOUKI (1973)

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DIRECTED BY: Djibril Diop Mambéty

FEATURING: Magaye Niang, Mareme Niang

PLOT: A young misfit and his girlfriend take off for Paris, committing a series of petty thefts on the way to fund their trip.

COMMENTS: This landmark film from Senegal, newly released by the Criterion Collection in a stunning HD restoration, begins with cowherds leading their flock through the pasture. An idyllic scene, but it soon turns dark… dark red, to be exact. The cows are on their way to be slaughtered—a scene that we are made to witness in all its gory detail. As the blood splatters and covers the slaughterhouse floor, the screen turns a sickening red usually reserved for grimy 1970s pseudo-snuff films. Although we never learn the exact circumstances, it’s a memory burned onto the protagonist’s psyche that will be recalled later at a crucial moment.

The central story of Touki Bouki is straight out of films like Breathless and Pierrot le Fou. Rebel without a cause Mory decides to shake off the dregs of Dakar and head north to Paris with his girlfriend Anta, first setting off on a carefree crime spree to raise the funds. But director Djibril Diop Mambety isn’t just a stylist looking to transplant French cinema into an African setting. After all, Senegal had only recently gained their independence from France at the time this film was made. There’s a sarcastic edge to much of the self-conscious French New Wave flourishes, like the song on the radio incessantly crooning “Paris, Paris, Paris,” and jokes at the expense of those who have sold themselves out to the new neo-colonial order.

Even so, Touki Bouki isn’t a political film, either. Although he didn’t have any formal film school training, Mambety had a knack for visual poetry, observing his surroundings and making evocative connections without the need to impose any explicit political ideology on top of it. For example, in another graphic scene not suitable for the squeamish, a goat is slaughtered—likely for sacrificial purposes. A woman takes off her coat, revealing nothing underneath. An inverted cross-like ornament glimmers in the hot desert sun. Waves crash beneath the edge of a cliff. There is a feeling of mystery, danger, and desperation. Mambety doesn’t feel the need to explain, distilling his imagery into poetry–conveying life as a waking dream not easily understood.

As the story begins to unfold, these dreamlike qualities take over. Mory and Anta embark on a road to nowhere, committing petty crimes and entertaining imaginary admirers. A deranged Tarzan disciple, one of the few white people in the film, is seen caterwauling at birds in a tree, only to come down and steal Mory’s motorcycle. Mory and Anta are able to steal a huge amount of money from a tribal benefit to support the building of a monument for Charles de Gaulle, right from under the eyes of the police officer in charge of guarding it. We don’t see the crime itself, only the lovers’ triumphant escape with a gigantic trunk full of cash. Later, Mory steals an entire wardrobe’s worth of clothing from a gay playboy’s mansion, as a decadent party goes on outside.

The line between the real world and the lovers’ fantasy world is always blurred. Memories collide with the present, and time is all but nonexistent. When Mory finally has his chance to leave Senegal, Mambety uses an allegorical montage to signal his change of heart, a stunning moment of free-flowing visual poetry that leads into an impressionistic dream sequence to end the film. Mambety’s vision is vivid and defiant, integrating French influence into a framework that is proudly African, with logic-defying montage and cinematography so vivid and striking that it threatens to explode right off the screen.

Even for those who have seen Touki Bouki before, Criterion’s recent Blu-ray release upgrades the experience. Along with a vivid 2K restoration of the film itself, there are interviews with admirers such as and Abderrahmane Sissako, as well as Mambety’s brother, Wasis Diop, who worked on the production. But the biggest revelation here is Contras’ City, Mambety’s debut short film from 1968. A feverish tour through the city of Dakar, this tongue-in-cheek city symphony explores the clash between different cultures and religions. There are soaring views of architecture, occasional moments of harsh realism, but always laced with the sharp sarcastic edge that also defines Touki Bouki.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the greatest of all African films and almost certainly the most experimental. – Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

10*: THE FABULOUS BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1962)

Baron Prásil

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Miloš Kopecký, Jana Brejchová, Rudolf Jelínek

PLOT: An astronaut, Tonik, discovers that he is not the first man on the Moon, having been beaten there by literary figures Cyrano de Bergerac, Jules Verne’s protagonists of “From the Earth to the Moon,” and Baron Munchausen. Mistaking the astronaut as a native moonman, Munchausen volunteers to take him back to Earth to show him the ways of earthlings. The pair there rescue a princess from a sultan and are swallowed by a fish, among other fantastic adventures.

BACKGROUND:

  • The character of Baron Munchausen comes from  Rudolf Erich Raspe’s 1785 novel “Baron Munchausen’s narrative of his marvellous travels and campaigns in Russia.” Raspe based Muchausen on a real-life German officer who was notorious for embellishing tales of his own military exploits. Czechs traditionally called the same character “Baron Prásil.”
  • Munchausen’s stories have been adapted to film many times, beginning with a short in 1911.
  • Karel Zeman’s previous film, the black and white Invention for Destruction [Vynález zkázy], won the Grand Prix at the International Film Festival at Expo 58, and was considered the most successful Czech film of all time. Baron Prásil was even more ambitious, adding a luscious color palette and expanding on the techniques Zeman had pioneered in his previous work.
  • Home Cinema Choice named The Fabulous Baron Munchausen‘s 2017 remaster the best restoration of the year.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Red smoke billowing in a yellow sky as the Baron and companions escape on horseback.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Cyrano and pals on the Moon; Pegasus-drawn spaceship

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Baron Prasil is a stunning visual feast combining live-action and animation, the effect far surpassing the modest means (by then-current standards) with which it was made.


Trailer for the restored version of The Fabulous Baron Munchausen

COMMENTS: “If he’s endowed with such imagination, let’s see some Continue reading 10*: THE FABULOUS BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1962)