Tag Archives: Dreamlike

CHANNEL 366: UNDONE (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Hisko Hulsing

FEATURING: Rosa Salazar, Bob Odenkirk, Angelique Cabral, Constance Marie, Siddharth Dhananjay

PLOT: Following a car accident, underachiever Alma discovers that… well, I’ll let her tell you: “I’m seeing my dead father because of my big ventricles, and he’s training me to travel in time so I can save him from being murdered.”

Still from "Undone" (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As we’ve previously discussed, TV is very much its own thing, and we probably won’t be inducting any ongoing series into the pantheon of weirdness. But Undone has legit weird chops, and deserves to be part of the conversation about the joys of entertainment that departs from the norm.

COMMENTS: Fans of s Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly 1 will be familiar with the technique of rotoscoping, in which filmed footage is traced, colored, and enhanced, combining the benefits of actor-driven performance and real-world situations with the flights of fancy and reality-bending leaps of animation. It can be used to make animation seem more real (see almost any Disney fairy tale), but it can be used to arguably greater effect by lending surrealism and surprise to a concrete, grounded universe. You could conceivably throw animated techniques into a live-action movie (Speed Racer comes to mind), but when everything appears to be drawn, you’re actually starting out with a more comfortable sense of uncertainty.

This makes rotoscoped animation an almost perfect medium for a story that pertains to an examination of the mind and the possibility of mental illness. Undone, the tale of a young woman who is either developing extraordinary powers or is steadily losing her grip, may open with perfectly ordinary, even bland scenes of a heat-blanched San Antonio, but the slight wobble of the frame, the distinct outline of people and things, the trappings of animation start us off in an unsteady place. So when we go into Alma’s brain and watch those things start to deconstruct, we’re fully prepared for the journey, even as it leads us into stranger places. Form follows function.

“Undone” is the creation of Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, two veterans of the popular, traditionally animated “BoJack Horseman.” That show has itself played with linear time and the inner workings of thought and memory (in particular, two episodes–“Downer Ending” and “Time’s Arrow”–seem to have directly informed this new series), but “Undone” has none of the blatant satire or absurdity of its predecessor. It manages to feel both more real and dreamier.

Like another streaming series I’ve reviewed recently, a lot of weight rests on the shoulders of one woman to sell both the likeability of her frequently unlikeable character, and the terror and wonder of confronting fantastic forces that feel beyond her control. In this case, that’s Rosa Salazar, who earned her chops in animation-enhanced acting in the title role of Alita: Battle Angel. Salazar’s Alma is by turns charming, selfish, independent, and righteous—but always compelling and deserving of empathy. We are given several opportunities to consider that we are putting our faith in a mentally unstable hero, but the urge for her to win out is consistent. Ably supported by a cast of supporting characters who could all headline their own show, Salazar is a true star.

It’s worth noting that one of the most delightfully weird elements of “Undone” is the way it mainstreams voices and cultures that are typically ignored, tokenized, or fetishized. Alma, for instance, is Latinx, Mestiza, half-Jewish, millennial, Texan (her rant about the Alamo is spot-on), but never any of these things exclusively to advance the plot or at the expense of being relatably human. Similarly, her father’s faith or her boyfriend’s home country are essential to understanding them and who they are to Alma, but they don’t feel like they came from a diversity checklist devised to maximize revenue streams. They’re interesting, they add complexity, and they make a surreal enterprise feel very real. If it’s weird, it’s because it’s finally not weird at all.

“Undone” is hardly perfect. The limits of the animation can be felt most in the “real-world” scenes, when actors walk awkwardly in and out of scenes like they’ve stepped out of the cutscenes from a 1990s CD-ROM game. Perhaps even more awkward is the basic limitation of the TV series itself. To spend time in a created universe is to ultimately need some kind of understanding; we’re gonna need to know how the transporter works, even if it’s just a device to get Kirk down to the planet. The more Alma begins to take control over time and space, the more invested we become in knowing what’s going on, and that can be incredibly dangerous for a series. Explain too much and you’re “Lost;try and pile on the mysteries for too long and you’re “Twin Peaks.” It’s a fine line, and with the prospect of a second season teased by this season’s finale, “Undone” is teetering right on the edge. But for now, the show is an easy-to-binge, well-balanced mélange of sober and strange.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…manages somehow to be both surreal and yet strangely hyper-real, a sensation enhanced by the technique of rotoscope animation, which traces live-action actors (all terrific) against oil-painting backgrounds to shimmering, hypnotic effect.”–Matt Roush, TV Insider

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: 9 LIVES OF A WET PUSSY (1976)

Nothing Sacred

DIRECTED BY: Abel Ferrara (as “Jimmy Boy L”)

FEATURING: Dominique Santos, Pauline LaMonde, Joy Silver,  Abel Ferrara (as Jimmy Laine)

PLOT: Gypsy reminisces about her relationship with Pauline while working out how to keep her wild lover faithful to her alone.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: 9 Lives is a porno, but Abel Ferrara’s artistic direction coupled with the epistolary and dreamy nature of the narrative make this an odd porno.

COMMENTS: A piece of trivia: the review for Blue Movie has gotten about fifteen hits a day since it was first posted. That’s not because it’s particularly insightful,1 but because 366 gets a bit of overseas traffic for “blue movies“—and few I’ve seen come “bluer” than Abel Ferrara’s 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy. Any systematic discussion of movies (weird or otherwise) would be remiss not to include cinema’s less respected peer, pornography. Since mankind could sculpt, then paint, then photograph, there has been a healthy inclusion of carnality in art. Film is no exception, and so it was without trepidation that I dove headfirst into 9 Lives.

The tone is set immediately, with the opening credits intercut with a graphic scene that flirts with abstraction via novel camera focus and expressionistic lighting. The story proper begins with a narration playing over a steamy encounter with “the French stable boy”, which we quickly learn is being read from a letter to Gypsy (Dominique Santos) from her on-again, off-again lover, Pauline (Pauline LaMonde, Ferrara’s girlfriend at the time). Through Gypsy’s emotional lens, we witness Pauline’s insatiable sexual appetite, her transcendent approach to pleasure, and her unbridled freedom. Various segments illustrate Pauline’s character: an encounter with a gas station attendant while her husband waits in the car; her upbringing—and its Lot-ian results—under a strict, Catholic father; and a long-term affair with her Nigerian lover, Nacala (Joy Silver). All the while, we return to Gypsy talking directly to us as she maneuvers to retrieve Pauline and keep her to herself.

What could have been a mindless framework for an anthology of loosely related set-pieces becomes something considerably more under Abel Ferrara’s oversight. Gypsy’s mysticism appears throughout; her name indicates her archetype. Ferrara himself plays another archetype—the religious, domineering father—in one of the episodes, breaking the incest taboo in his very first film. 9 Lives‘ rape scene, however, suggests Ferrara’s future. Ms. 45, Bad Lieutenant, and even New Rose Hotel all explore sexual violence and guilt. We expect that from gritty dramas; much less-so from dirty movies. The movie climaxes with a nebulous scene that underlines the film’s contrast between dreaminess and physicality while mirroring the opening: Pauline with Nacala, together, intercut with shots of Gypsy wandering with aimless purpose through a forest.

It works well enough as a story (I was interested in the development of Gypsy’s and Pauline’s relationship), and Abel Ferrara gets the job done, as it were, as a straight-up pornographer. However, I highly recommend watching the Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray with Samm Deighan’s commentary. She provides the film’s context and a thorough sketch of the director as a young man (he was 25 at the time). Beginning as he did in hardcore film, I’m not surprised that Ferrara remained on cinema’s fringes throughout his career; the passion that robbed him of mainstream success, however, is the key to his oeuvre’s staying power.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an opium-stoned hostess introduces several sexual vignettes, and though slightly classier than the usual cum pageants, it’s impossible to achieve a Lady Chatterley-like decadence when you’re saddled with an Al Adamson-like cast… a must-see embarrassment!” –Steven Puchalski, Shock Cinema

CAPSULE: DIAMONDS OF THE NIGHT (1964)

Démanty noci 

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ladislav Jánsky, Antonín Kumbera

PLOT: Two Jewish boys escape from the Nazis and flee through the German countryside.

Still from Diamonds of the Night (1964)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A minimalist mix of almost-documentary realism with disorienting fantasies and flashbacks, there are rewards to be had in digging up the buried narrative gems in Diamonds of the Night. But despite its impressive pathos, it’s easy to see why this dour, low-budget sleeper wasn’t one of the enduring international breakout titles of the . Nemec would deliver better films.

COMMENTS:We open on two boys running into the woods with a train clacking in the background. They ditch overcoats painted with the letters “KL” (for “konzentrationslager,” indicating they are bound for Nazi concentration camps) as they flee the sound of gunfire and cries of “halt!”

This thrilling opening soon loses steam, however, as the boys continue to run, then slow to a walk, then walk, and walk, and walk, occasionally pausing to lap water from a stream like dogs or take off their boots to check on their spreading blisters. It’s all shot with documentary-style shaky handheld cameras. There is no dialogue for the first fifteen minutes (and little thereafter).

The drudging pace and gray tedium of this opening will lose many viewers. The increasing confusion of the story will lose even more; but it is here is where Diamonds of the Night starts to get interesting. A few mysterious flashbacks—one of the boys climbing through cars in an empty passenger trolley, random scenes of the two trekking through almost deserted cities—are spread throughout the film’s first half. These increase in frequency as the movie progresses, and start to overlap with fantasy scenes, creating layers of memory, dreams and reality that blend together. When one of the boys barges in on a farm wife as she prepares lunch, for a while it’s unclear what really happens. We see alternative scenarios, one in which she silently hands him bread to eat, and one in which he kills her and takes the loaf. It’s immaterial whether he really strikes her down or not; he’s hungry and desperate enough to kill, and it’s only a question of fate whether he raises his hand or not.

In the second half of the film, the fugitives are hunted by a posse of German men too old to serve at the front; it’s grimly amusing to see the aged squad arthritically stalk them through the forest. An extended, chopped-up sequence of flashbacks shows one of the pair strolling through Prague streets that were deserted in previous flashbacks, wearing the coat that destines him for the death camps, running through the trolley once more, thinking of a dark-haired girl, pressing a doorbell and getting no answer; impressions of a life just before the Nazis seized him that conveys a sense of oppression without telling a coherent story. They are caught by their doddering pursuers when one of the boys can no longer run on his injured foot and the other stops to help him; a flashback shows the healthy one trading his boot to the injured one for food on the concentration camp train.

Matching the nonlinear storyline, the film is also out of phase aurally: sometimes the sounds of memories will lap over into the current times, and sometimes the opposite happens, further blurring the boundary between past and present, fantasy and reality.

Diamonds was adapted from Arnošt Lustig’s autobiographical novel; Nemec’s student graduation thesis film (1960’s “A Loaf of Bread,” included on the Criterion disc) was also a Lustig adaptation. As a first narrative feature, Diamonds of the Night plays like a very advanced student film; even it’s padded-yet-barely-over-an-hour runtime fits the bill. There are fascinating moments, but probably only a half and hour of truly interesting material here, interspersed with long stretches of the boys trudging joylessly through the woods. The 2019 Criterion release supplements the film’s short running time with two short documentaries featuring Nemec, a visual essay, Czech New Wave expert Irena Kovaroa, the aforementioned student short, and of course a booklet with an essay by critic Michael Atkinson.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a realistic Czechoslovak film about two escapees from a German concentration camp; it makes one realize just how valid and necessary absurdism, particularly the austere absurdism of great dramatists like Beckett or even Pinter, is.”–Renata Adler, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

2*. CÉLINE AND JULIE GO BOATING (1974)

Céline et Julie vont en bateau

“Each of us is the other half of our divided and ambiguous selves. The art of acting implies a dual personality and between the two of us we were able to create an organic whole.” –Juliet Berto

DIRECTED BY: Jacques Rivette

FEATURING: , Dominique Labourier, , , Barbet Schroeder

PLOT: Céline is in a hurry and drops a number of props as she passes Julie on a park bench, who picks them up and follows her, picking up more dropped accessories on the way. Their friendship thus established, Céline relates an odd tale about a dreamy encounter in a suburban mansion. The two friends find themselves investigating their memories in an attempt to solve a long-dead mystery and prevent a tragedy.

BACKGROUND:

  • Winner of the “Special Prize of the Jury” at the Locarno International Film Festival as well as being an “Official Selection” at the New York Film Festival on the year of its release.
  • Despite its light-hearted tone, shooting Céline and Julie was a comparatively tense affair. It was the cameraman’s (Jacques Renard) first movie, and shooting had to be completed in 20 working days over a four week period.
  • The “film-within-a-film” idea was built in from the beginning of development, even though writer/director Rivette didn’t know what the inner “film” was going to turn out to be at the time of inception.
  • Henry James’ story “The Other House” ultimately became the inspiration for the dream narrative shared by Céline and Julie.
  • An alternate title for the film, Phantom Ladies Over Paris, became something of a joke with the crew during production, having been suggested as what the movie would be titled if it had been American.
  • “Vont en bateaux” (“going boating”) has an idiomatic meaning in French, suggesting that one is following an outlandish narrative—the equivalent of a “shaggy-dog story”.
  • Celine and Julie provided the inspiration for Susan Seidelman’s 1985 comedy, Desperately Seeking Susan.
  • Celine and Julie go Boating 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: The whimsical double scene in the library is probably the most important for establishing the titular characters. Julie sits at her desk, doing clerical work that her coworker interrupts for a Tarot reading. In the background, Céline sifts through children’s books in a nearby room. In one volume, Céline uses a bright red marker to outline her hand while Julie sits at her desk playing with her red ink pad, making random markings on a sheet of paper with her fingertips. Tying the two together with this imagery handily conveys the connection between these two mysterious women.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Roller-skate library break-in; memory candies

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Jacques Rivette has made an usual movie-within-a-movie, but goes extra steps beyond that “norm” with additional flourishes. The ghostliness of the inner narrative fuses oddly with the surrounding light-heartedness, rendering it almost a “horror-comedy.” Slippery memories give Céline and Julie Go Boating a feeling akin to ResnaisJe T’aime, Je T’aime and Last Year at Marienbad, while other diversions bring to mind Truffaut’s nouvelle vague realism. And, of course, the candy-based memory inducement is weird in its own right.

Trailer for Céline and Julie Go Boating

COMMENTS: In the whimsical spirit of the movie, I shall begin by remarking, yes, my friend, don’t worry: Céline and Julie do indeed go Continue reading 2*. CÉLINE AND JULIE GO BOATING (1974)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: DREAMLAND (2019)

AKA Bruce McDonald’s Dreamland

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bruce McDonald

FEATURING: , Henry Rollins, Juliette Lewis, Lisa Houle, Tómas Lemarquis

PLOT: A burnt-out trumpeting virtuoso is to play at the wedding at the castle of a disgraced countess, while a burnt-out hitman has a crisis of conscience when he discovers his boss is trafficking young girls.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Having Stephen McHattie double-act as two soul-crushed sides of the same tarnished coin lends Dreamland its own oddness, but that is almost subsumed as a manic climax erupts at a sinister wedding between a nut job who thinks he’s a vampire and girl of fourteen. However, it’s the overall—you guessed it—“dreaminess” of the movie, grounded in an altogether real pathos, that makes Dreamland much weirder than its fellow bad-guy-gets-redemption tales.

COMMENTS: The ending credits for Bruce McDonald’s latest movie gave notice that it was “filmed on location in Dreamland.” Were I not somewhat familiar with major European cities, I might have had half a mind to believe it. The non-specific geography encapsulates the overall atmosphere of Dreamland: strange goings-on in a shabby metropolis at the foot of an imposing, high-walled fortress. The neon grit of the atmosphere feels like it was scraped off the cracking leather shoes of the protagonist after having just stomped through mean streets on mean business.

Dreamland starts with a montage flourish of well-heeled and well-armed degenerates leaving an airport and climbing into an awaiting limosine. Having just looked at some Tinder-style photos of young girls, a very bad man gets half a sentence out before being shot in the head by his limo driver—none other than our nameless hero (Stephen McHattie). Defiant, with his scraggly haircut and gumshoe get up straight from the ’70s, he’s rewarded with a fat wad of cash from his boss Hercules (Henry Rollins), then with the unfortunate revelation that Hercules has just branched out into the kiddie-prostitution business. The nameless gunman’s next assignment: collecting and delivering the “right pinkie finger” of a disgraced trumpet player (Stephen McHattie) for an alleged slight against Hercules. When visited by a young boy whose sister went missing, the assassin knows the girl’s fate: to be married off to the deranged brother-in-law of local royalty. The hitman, having hit bottom, decides to take a stand.

Whether or not Dreamland would work hinged on two things: the effectiveness of the stylized haze of thought and vision between set pieces, and Stephen McHattie’s ability to convince as the two leads. The latter first. In both roles, McHattie conjures a Dashell Hammet archetype of the world-weary man, with each character having its own twist. While the trumpet player’s mind has been ground down (in his case, by heroin), it’s the hitman’s soul that has been hit hard. Combined, they’d make a perfectly broken Sam Spade, and watching them talk with each other is simultaneously eerie and hilarious. This ties in with the stylized interludes: the killer is struck by haunting visions, and the musician is “able to be in two places at once.” Their paths keep crossing, and the hitman’s fight for what is right contrasts with his counterparts shame at not being able to take any action.

Reading that back to myself, I realize some fairly heavy stuff went on in Dreamland, yet the film spins along in a vibrant fashion. Garish nightclubs merge with dispiriting city streets and homicidal pawnbroker’s wives aid against gun-toting boy gangs; but the image of McHattie’s face—either as the haunted gun man or the wryly smiling maestro—dominates. And once again I find myself making this sound heavy. I suppose that heavy it may be; but it is also, one might say, dreamy.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Canadian director Bruce McDonald serves up a beautifully imagined and gorgeously realized offering with his latest film, the genre-blending Dreamland. With its story of two very different men who look hauntingly alike and an act of violence that causes them to meet, the film mixes surrealism, horror, fantasy, and modern noir.” -Joseph Perry, Diabolique Magazine (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BUFFET FROID (1979)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bertrand Blier

FEATURING: , Bernard Blier, Jean Carmet, ,

PLOT: A man in the Metro confesses his fantasies about killing strangers to a stranger; a surreal series of casual murders follows, most occurring over the course of a single long night.

Still from Buffet Froid (1979)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This dreamlike and absurd black comedy about murder may be the most Buñuelian movie never made.1

COMMENTS: “Don’t you ever get odd ideas?”, young and unemployed Alphonse (Depardieu) asks a stranger in the Paris Metro. Director Bertrand Blier has plenty of odd ideas, most of them revolving around murder and his characters’ blasé reactions to the ultimate crime. It turns out Alphonse may, or may not, have killed the accountant he met in the subway—but no one seems to care. His wife merely throws his bloody switchblade in the dishwasher.  He goes to his new neighbor, who just happens to be a police inspector, to report the death, but the man is off duty and can’t be bothered. Another murderer shows up at his doorway and Alphonse invites him in for dinner and a glass of wine. Then, through a series of dreamlike coincidences, the inspector and the killer join Alphonse on a murder spree—if such a laid-back, stumbling affair can be called a “spree,” and if some of the mysterious killings qualify as “murder.”

For the most part, the film’s events occur over one long, endless night—with perhaps a nap or two—before a sunlit epilogue in the French countryside. Characters never show up unless they are needed as killers, victims, or witnesses—there are no extras waiting for trains in the Metro, the Paris streets are deserted, and even the skyscraper that houses Alphonse’s apartment is totally uninhabited except for him, his wife, and the newly-arrived Inspector. Alphonse, and the other characters, also complain about the cold—they never seem to be able to get warm. Perhaps they are feeling the chill of the grave?

Alphonse is the dreamer who has an inkling that he might be dreaming—he is the only one who (occasionally) wonders what’s going on, who finds it odd that no one seems to care that he might be a murderer. Everyone else accepts the ever-shifting social dynamics with the calm acceptance of someone living in a dream. The acting is utterly deadpan and droll. A man is tortured by being exposed to a string quintet. Alphonse mentions that he has nightmares that last all night where he is wanted for murder and chased by the police. Perversely, in the nightmare script that plays out, the police don’t hunt him, but abet his ambiguous crimes. Some of it is a black satire on modern alienation, but the surrealism of the scenario speaks to deeper fears—death is the only sure constant in this movie where caprice otherwise rules the night.

Buffet Froid flopped (commercially) on its release, wasn’t screened in the U.S. for seven years, and is barely distributed today. It is reportedly a cult film in France, but that doesn’t do much for the rest of us. I was able to find it on the free-streaming service Kanopy (which requires membership at a a participating public or university library—and the catalog my differ depending on your supplier).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A blackly surreal procession of amoral and/or illegal acts…  producing a cherishably Buñuelian depiction of the far-from-discreet crimes of the bourgeoisie.”–Time Out London

(This movie was nominated for review by “Dwarf Oscar,” who called it an “an absurd and deadpan comedy that gained a cult status here in France.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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)