Tag Archives: Existential

CAPSULE: ANIMALIA (2023)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Oumaima Barid, Mehdi Dehbi, Fouad Oughaou

PLOT: A pregnant woman in Morocco is stranded away from her rich husband when an apocalyptic religious event sweeps the globe.

Still from Animalia (2023)

COMMENTS: Pregnant Itto, a poor Berber girl who has recently married a scion of a wealthy and influential family, is basically happy in her luxurious new life—despite feeling that her mother-in-law, in particular, will never completely accept her. An ambiguous global emergency disrupts her peace, however, separating her from her husband and forcing her to flee into the countryside, where she must confront both sexual prejudice and class resentment. Soon after, she has a hallucinatory experience of a cosmic, religious character, before reuniting with her rich family, who feast on as they always have despite the fact that the world appears to be coming to an end.

The effects of the worldwide disruption are kept as minimal as possible, which makes it seem even weirder and more inexplicable. Animals are acting strange, especially dogs, who now roam about in packs on rooftops, befriending some people while attacking others. Certain small towns are eerily deserted: have the residents all fled, or is there some other explanation for the depopulation? The movie includes one major special effect, a giant column of smoke wreathing around a glowing green core rising from the desert. A news report, broadcast in a now-deserted store, indicates that the source of all the strangeness appears to be linked to certain vague “presences.” Are the visitors aliens from outer space, or are they supernatural beings, angels or djinn? The script is studiously ambiguous on this point, requiring viewers to make their own judgements.

The film’s Islamic approach to mysticism is refreshing, and, in the end, undogmatic. A bitter, but honest, atheistic Berber is one of the most sympathetic characters. Another passing character caught in the maelstrom stresses that God is “elusive, like a black ant on a black stone on a dark night.” Alaoui stages a midpoint psychedelic sequence simply and effectively through a combination of ecstatic cinematography, double exposures, and trancelike music layered with the sounds of whispers and gently bleating sheep.

Technically, Animalia is advanced, especially for a modestly budgeted affair from first-time1 feature maker Alaoui. In only her second film performance, Oumaima Barid astounds, carrying the film, making Itto far more resourceful and resilient than she initially seems. The bleak but majestic Atlas mountains are beautifully photographed by cinematographer Noé Bach, with the dusty location lending a Mad Max ambiance to the pre-post-apocalyptic tale. Despite all this excellence, the slow pace and ambiguity ensure that only art-house aficionados need apply; this is one of those movies that polarizes awestruck critics and uncomprehending general audiences. But if you get on this film’s wavelength it might mesmerize you: thinking of Alaoui as a feminist, Muslim Tarkovsky is not a completely out-there comparison.

Animalia is many things: a drama about a woman in peril, a critique of modern Moroccan society, a science fictional fantasia about the end of the world, a spiritual meditation. And yet, I think of it primarily as an existential story. No matter where Itto goes, something separates her from others: she’s poor to the rich, rich to the poor, always caught in-between. Animalia is about the forces that separate people, and how they nevertheless find ways to connect despite being ultimately alone in a universe that’s impossible to fully comprehend.

Animalia is currently playing in art-house theaters, and available from some on-demand providers (see below.)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“An increasingly surreal, even psychedelic journey with strong elements of socioeconomic and religious critique, this very accomplished movie packs a lot into just 90 minutes—it is, in every sense, a trip.”–Dennis Havey, “48 Hills” (festival screening)

  1. The scenario is basically an expansion of her 2019 short “So What If the Goats Die,” which we once featured as a Saturday Short but which has unfortunately been since blocked from general viewing. ↩︎

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: MICKEY ONE (1965)

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DIRECTED BY: Arthur Penn

FEATURING: Warren Beatty, , Hurd Hatfield, Teddy Hart, Franchot Tone

PLOT: A small-time comedian in Detroit runs afoul of the mob and skips town, but remains drawn to the stage—and his longing for the spotlight finds him risking unwanted attention from his pursuers.

Still from mickey one (1965)

COMMENTS: A turning point in the annals of American cinema came when Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn teamed up to apply the iconoclastic stylings of the movement to a classic crime story of a protagonist on the run from a relentless pursuer. That legendary collaboration, of course, is Bonnie and Clyde. Which makes it interesting to discover that landmark film actually represents a second bite at the apple. Before Bonnie and Clyde could run, Mickey One had to crawl.

Ostensibly about a comic on the run from the mob, Mickey One is deeply uninterested in the details of its plot. (Beatty is never told explicitly what he’s done wrong, and his attempts to buy his way out of his troubles are not so much rejected as ignored.) Instead, we open with a montage of Beatty’s high-flying comedian living the high life, and then immediately descend into full-blown paranoia. He sets fire to all his identification, rips the satin piping off his tuxedo pants, grabs a seat in hobo first-class on the next train out of town, and quickly submerges himself in a series of the lowest-level jobs he can find, assuming the name that gives the film its title. 

At this point, Mickey One seems to be a story of a confident man forced to become weak but unable to pull it off. His fear is genuine; he immediately dashes out of a restaurant the moment he hears it might have mob connections, and he regards anyone who tries to interact with him with disgust and anger. And yet, watching his fellow hacks at the mic, he can’t deny the call of the limelight, and so he tries to walk the line between satisfying his need to perform and desperately trying to avoid sending up a signal flare to his pursuers. Trying to balance these contrary impulses is destroying him, and that’s the character study we’re here for. Beatty is all jittery energy and barely contained rage; he never really demonstrates any actual comic ability (a complaint Beatty lodged throughout the production), but he’s got the loose rhythms and the nervous energy of James Dean or young Paul Newman, never sitting still and chewing on his words like gum. He’s all exposed wiring.

But there’s a turning point when the film suddenly becomes about something else. In a tense sequence, Mickey is maneuvered into auditioning for an unseen impresario, a scratchy voice barking out orders from behind the harshest spotlight ever aimed at a stage. Mickey is utterly terrified that whoever it is in the darkness will end him permanently, but everyone else—his girlfriend, his agent, a persistent booker—all seem equally terrified of their fate if he doesn’t perform. And that’s when it starts to feel like Mickey One is an allegory. We’ve been treated to metaphor throughout the film. Car crushers devour tons of metal on the outskirts of town. The booking agent (played by Hatfield, who I can only describe as a poor man’s James Olson) has an office that’s entirely white and seemingly decorated exclusively in glass. Benevolent societies sing at street corners about the coming judgment day, while a street artist makes enormous mechanical constructions that are destroyed by the authorities at the merest hint of a malfunction. And then there are the voices, speaking to Mickey from behind blinding lights and through faceless cameras. It all hints at meaning something bigger, but this is the moment when Beatty seems to be dueling with nothing less than God itself. Small wonder that he would run at the first opportunity.

Mickey One feels like an ancestor to any number of future Warren Beatty showcases: the overconfidence of Shampoo, the raw paranoia of The Parallax View, the collision of crime and entertainment in Bugsy. And that’s no small accomplishment, to be a rough draft of a style of filmmaking and a type of character study that will be accomplished more successfully down the line. But it ends up being more of an augury than a film that stands on its own. In that sense, the film is very much like its hero in the final scene: eager to put on a show, but exposed to the elements and fearful of the reception that is destined to come.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“With its surrealistic, Felliniesque presence, ‘Mickey One’ is a stunning piece.”–Peter Stack, San Francisco Chronicle (1995 revival)

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

CAPSULE: PITFALL (1962)

Otoshiana

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Hisashi Igawa, Sumie Sasaki, Kunie Tanaka

PLOT: A miner in search for work is led to a ghost town where he’ll become embroiled in a plot involving manipulation, trade unions, and doppelgangers.

Pitfall (1962)

COMMENTS: Pitfall was the first of a series of collaborations between Hiroshi Teshigahara (director), author Kobo Abe (screenwriter), and Toru Takemitsu (composer); the trio would later produce works like The Woman in the Dunes and The Face of Another. Although an interesting piece on its own, Pitfall feels more like a prelude to greater works to come.

The beginning of the film establishes a sense of mystery and intrigue, as well as looming menace and disquiet (to which Takemitsu’s experimental score proves indispensable). Our main character is a miner traveling with his son in search of a job; he receives a map and instructions to go to a certain town where work awaits him. Upon arrival, the place is revealed to be practically deserted, save for a woman living in a house on its outer edges. After a brief interaction with her, the miner finds himself pursued by a figure in a white suit who eventually stabs him to death.

The Kafkaesque setup (and tone) only paves the way for further strangeness. A few scenes later the miner returns as a befuddled ghost helplessly wandering around the town, unable to interact with the living but trying to uncover the reason for his assassination. The remainder of the film maintains this dynamic: an unfolding drama in the realm of the living, with commentary of ghosts who can do nothing but passively observe.

Even before being reduced to a ghost, the main character is already caught in a web of mysterious causes and effects, moved by an ineffable logic not unlike the inscrutable bureaucratic machinations of  The Trial. Once the plot turns its focus on the investigation of the miner’s murder, the drama thickens (along with the confusion and weirdness), and stretches to a conspiracy involving the leaders of separate factions of a trade union.

More so than in the other films by the trio, the political dimension is particularly evident in Pitfall. The well-dressed figure in white, a symbol of the upper class or even capital itself, orchestrates the events like a demiurge, leading the working class to destruction. They persist only as powerless ghosts who can only witness their own oppression, and comment on it without ever being heard. This is but one of the levels of analysis, and we should not ignore the aura of alienation that the film communicates on a purely existential level.

For a first excursion, Teshigahara’s direction is surprisingly assured. As is usually the case with early efforts by masters, the seeds of what he would go on to accomplish are fully on display in Pitfall. Even if the story does not play out as elegantly and concisely as future offerings by the same team, the film is an assured recommendation to anyone who has enjoyed them.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a classic ‘first film,’ full of restless energy and expressionistic visuals. It’s doggedly odd, but thoroughly involving.”–Noel Murray, AV Club (Criterion DVD box set)

CAPSULE: APPLES (2020)

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Apples is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

DIRECTED BY: Christos Nikou

FEATURING: Aris Servetalis, Sofia Georgovassili

PLOT:  After falling victim to a syndrome that causes sudden memory loss, Aris enters an odd recovery program designed to create new memories for a new identity.

Still from Apples (2020)

COMMENTS: When a man snarls traffic by abandoning his vehicle in the road and sitting on the curb, then denies it was his car, a fellow passenger takes it in stride and calls an ambulance. In Apples, an incurable plague of sudden-onset amnesia is so common that people don’t get angry about the inconveniences it causes. When Aris forgets his name and where he’s going on a public bus, he is routinely sent to a hospital wing dedicated to amnesiacs. After no friends or family come to claim him, he is enrolled in an experimental new program designed to give amnesiacs a new beginning. The regimen involves the subject recreating a series of representative experiences—riding a bicycle, crashing a car, having a one-night stand—and taking Polaroids of themselves at the scene, which they place in a special memory album. With no other obvious options, Aris dutifully enters the program and sets about following the doctors’ instructions for creating a life. A few tantalizing memories of his old existence occasionally break through the fog: a dog’s name, a street address. But all we can be reasonably certain of from his previous life is that he loved apples.

Apples will necessarily be seen as a late entry in the Greek Weird Wave—launched by with the deadpan absurdity of 2009’s Dogtoothand I doubt debuting director Christos Nikou would disavow the influence. Apples is Lanthomisian in rhythm and style, but pared-down to its essential moods. The acting is restrained but subtle, as opposed to the in-your-face, disconnected-from-reality non-acting that inhabits much of the Weird Wave. Servetalis’ nondescript, bearded face forms the perfect blank canvas on which we can project our own anxieties and melancholy. The sense of humor is absurd—Aris on a child’s bike, a doctor suggesting patients’ make therapeutic Molotov cocktails—but never approaches the surreal heights of something like The Lobster. The world here is only slightly askew, with the unexplained amnesia plague and the low-tech setting (Polaroids and cassette tapes instead of cell phones) serving as the only clues we’re not in present day reality. The spare cinematic compositions are designed to reinforce a sense of isolation, even in urban settings, but they are classically framed. (A cemetery scene with bone-white tombstones set against a gray sky and Aris standing in a slumped silhouette is one of the sweeter shots of the year.) It all seems designed to be more audience friendly than usual for the genre, but that choice doesn’t feel like a calculated compromise; rather, Nikou locates a natural space between standard arthouse drama and experimental film where he’s comfortable exploring penetrating ideas.

Note that there are two parts to the program Aris enters: constructing false memories, and creating a new identity for himself. Apples‘ plot focuses our attention on the bizarre methodology of the first part, but thematically, it’s more interested the second part of the formula. Apples becomes an existential fable raising open-ended questions: is Aris’ amnesia a result of traumatic event? Is it, in some sense, a choice? How essential is memory to our identity—if I forget everything, am I still me? Does the hospital’s structured regimen help or hinder Aris to live authentically? Apples invites you to puzzle out these questions on your own. The ending is, ironically, memorable.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It all sounds bizarre on paper. But Apples, the first feature from the director and co-writer Christos Nikou, unfolds with an understated deadpan wit that makes even its weirder touches seem plausible, even logical. At times it reminded me of some of the brilliant absurdist satires, like Dogtooth and Attenberg, that have put Greek cinema on the map over the past two decades.”–Justin Chang, NPR (contemporaneous)