Tag Archives: Existential

LIST CANDIDATE: I [HEART] HUCKABEES (2004)

DIRECTED BY: David O. Russell

FEATURING: , Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, , , ,

PLOT: Albert (Schwartzman) is an activist fighting the gigantic Huckabees corporation, which is building a Target-style store in the nearby woods. Enlisting the help of a pair of “existential detectives” (Tomlin and Hoffman), Albert soon encounters two Huckabees operatives—the beautiful blonde couple Brad (Law) and Dawn (Watts)—as well as a disillusioned fireman (Wahlberg). Eventually, everyone’s lives are changed.

Still from I [Heart] Huckabees (2004)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Because it is so willfully, obstinately pretentious, unfunny and heavy-handed as to be all but impenetrable. Still, fans of the bizarre will likely get something out of it, as it definitely goes all-out in its manic insanity and breaks a ton of storytelling rules.

COMMENTS: Director David O. Russell once said that I [Heart] Huckabees was his least favorite of his own films. It may not have been fun to make (find the YouTube videos that show Russell throwing a tantrum—among other things—at Tomlin), because it certainly isn’t fun to watch.  A labyrinthine mess, Huckabees makes no sense and doesn’t seem to want to. Despite fine performances (particularly Wahlberg’s) from its all-star cast, the movie is (apparently intentionally) unappealing from beginning to end. Granted, this is a polarizing picture (no one is likely to have a “meh” reaction to it), but yours truly could barely sit through the film.

After this debacle, Russell made Nailed, which was left unfinished and shelved for years, but followed it up with three artistic and commercial triumphs in a row: The Fighter (also with Wahlberg), Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle. I [Heart] Huckabees, by contrast, is like a transmission beamed in from an alternate, unpleasant universe in which nothing means anything. (Perhaps that was the point of the “existential detectives”). The film reaches one its many nadirs when Albert has a -like vision of Brad as a lactating Virgin Mary, or something.  Meanwhile Dustin Hoffman sports a hairstyle reminiscent of the Beatles circa 1964, Tippi Hedren drops an F-bomb, Schwartzman’s real-life mother (Talia Shire) shows up to play Albert’s mother, and Shania Twain pops up as herself (I can’t see her fan base enjoying this picture). None of this is amusing or at all entertaining. It is, however, genuinely bonkers. What the point of this silliness is  remains a mystery, but one that most people didn’t care to find out when the film opened in 2004. That was the same year that the equally challenging , but far superior, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was released. That film had a heart as well as a brain. Huckabees, on the other hand, is like an endless series of interlocking puzzle pieces that can never be put together correctly. It’s not a good movie, but it’s definitely a weird one, and it just might make it onto the List.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Weird does not necessarily equal funny.”–Linda Cook, Quad City Times (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: BLOW-UP (1966)

DIRECTED BY: Michelangelo Antonioni

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: A hedonistic fashion photographer snaps some candid pictures of a couple in a park; when he looks at the negatives, he thinks he may have discovered evidence of a murder.

Still from Blow-up (1966)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Blow-Up is only subtly weird, and its oddness only becomes truly apparent at the end. This site’s readers have never, to my memory, suggested this movie for review; and yet, Antonioni’s ambiguous examination of London mods in existential free-fall is something of a canonical art film that must be touched upon in a comprehensive survey of weird films.

COMMENTS: Let me put Blow-Up in a personal context. When I first saw this movie in my early twenties, I despised it. I can’t find my original review, but in essence, my viewpoint was that making a deliberately boring movie in order to critique the boredom of modern life—capped by the director dangling a single point of interest in front of the audience, only to snatch it away—was a reprehensible bit of auteurial sadism. Over time, however, I have to admit that several moments from Blow-Up lingered in my memory for years, like snapshots, indicating that the movie can’t be as bad, or as boring, as I originally thought it was. Seeing it again after a couple of intervening decades, I find I tolerate its (significant) longeurs much better; and, although I’ll stop short of reassessing it as a must-see masterpiece, I do reluctantly find its intellectual ambiguities (eventually) involving.

To understand the experience of Blow-Up, it’s important to point out that, for most of this film, nothing of significance happens. But a few scenes pop. There are, basically, four such sequences (leaving aside the opening where a gaggle of rambunctious mimes rampage through the streets of London, which might have been forgotten had they not returned in the coda). After a first half of the movie that features David Hemmings doing nothing other than snapping photographs of emaciated models, making snotty comments, and considering buying a propeller, the first scene of actual interest occurs when the movie is more than halfway over, when he looks at a series of photographs he snapped in the park earlier in the day. He thinks he sees something that might be a clue to a murder. What really “pops” about this scene is the photographer’s sudden look of interest as he peers at the blown-up negatives; mostly, he has appeared as bored as the audience up until this point. The fact that this monumentally jaded character is suddenly roused by this discovery makes it seem extra-important to us; the look of fascination on his face says to us “something is finally happening, the movie is starting!”

Indeed, the movie is starting, but not in the way we expect. As he blows up the photos, scanning for them for clues, the photographer is distracted by the appearance of two aspiring models, who bed him. It’s a hot scene, but the memorable part is when post-coital Hemmings suddenly glances at the photographs hanging on the wall, catches a new detail, and brusquely dismisses the birds to resume his investigation. Blow-Up‘s rhythm now requires that the photographer vacillate between intense commitment to solving the mystery and distraction by sex, drugs and the rock and roll lifestyle, so as he tries to investigate the suspected murder and convince his fellow mods to become involved, he finds himself wandering into a bizarre Yardbirds concert with a zombie-like audience. The final “popping” scene is the much talked-about finale, where, after having failed to solve the mystery, Hemmings encounters the hip mimes from the opening again. They pantomime a tennis game and ask him to fetch an imaginary ball in a final game that suggests that the thing we are seeking can be found, but we must know how to look.

Focusing on those key scenes and discarding the chaff makes Blow-Up a stronger film; the background noise of the photographer’s meaningless, fashionable mod existence is the texture from which the few meaningful moments pop. Although many movies improve on a second viewing, I can’t think of any that do so as dramatically as Blow-Up. Unlike Hemmings, the second time around we know what we are looking for. There’s nothing terribly obscure in the film’s overall design and sensibility, only in the maddening details and the quest to make sense of them. Blow-up is a foundational text of cinema d’ennui.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Antonioni pulls a Marceau-like expressionist finale in this picture, one of those fancy finishes that seems to say so much (but what?) and reminds one of so many naïvely bad experimental films.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (contemporaneous)

229. ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD (1990)

“No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.”
–T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Tom Stoppard

FEATURING: , , , Iain Glen

PLOT: Two of Hamlet’s old school chums are summoned to Elsinore to glean what afflicts the moody prince. Along their journey they encounter a traveling troupe of Players, whose leader offers to a put on a performance for them. Magically transported to the castle from the Players’ stage, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves trapped within the convoluted machinations of the royal court, confused as to their own identities and struggling to keep their heads while discussing basic questions of existence and fate.

Still from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

BACKGROUND:

  • Adapted from his own 1967 hit play, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is the first and (so far) only film directed by accomplished playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (who also contributed to Brazil).
  • The title comes straight from “Hamlet,” from the very last scene (Act V, Scene II). Arriving in Denmark to find nearly everyone in the royal court dead, the English ambassador bemoans, “The sight is dismal,/And our affairs from England come too late./The ears are senseless that should give us hearing,/To tell him his commandment is fulfill’d,/That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.”
  • Though it received tepid-to-positive reviews from contemporary critics (with most of the negative reviews comparing it unfavorably to the stage experience), Rosencrantz & Guildenstern did bag the top prize at the 1990 Venice Film Festival.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: I suspect I take no risk of spoiling the ending (the title itself gives something of a hint as to our heroes’ ultimate fate) by singling out the execution scene of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz. The former has a look of a man of reason who’s been broken by the illogical; the latter sports the complementary look of a man of whimsy who’s been worn down by niggling reality. Both accept their fate in states of differing exasperation.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: “Heads,” “heads,” “heads”…; am I Rosencrantz or are you Guildenstern?; play within a play within a play within a movie

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Tom Stoppard’s semi-medieval world is one of modern wordplay, post-modern comedy, existentialism, tragedy, and ambiguous identity. As it stands, the movie is perhaps the only example to be found in the “Nihilistic Farce” genre of cinema.


Clip from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

COMMENTS: Sometimes it’s just better to stay home. This lesson is Continue reading 229. ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD (1990)

CAPSULE: ANOMALISA (2015)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Voices of , , Tom Noonan

PLOT: A motivational speaker attending a business conference is dissatisfied with his humdrum existence, until he meets a seemingly average woman who, to him, is different than everyone else in his life.

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WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While many of Charlie Kaufman’s films are shoo-ins for any list of weird movies, Anomalisa is comparatively straightforward. The weird factor is there, but limited, with most of the film focusing on small details of human interaction.

COMMENTS: Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is a renowned expert in customer service, middle-aged and settled in, married with a young son, but his apparent career and familial success have not brought him happiness. He feels isolated from those around him, exemplified by their voices, which all sound the same. He reconnects with an old flame who lives in the city where he’s staying for a conference, but their meeting only leads to further estrangement. Michael’s hopelessness is finally lifted when he hears Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a shy, self-conscious sales representative attending the conference. Her voice is distinct, and thus she is distinct, and he immediately falls for her simply for her difference. They spend the night together and Michael hopes to begin a new life with her, but their connection is not as solid as he thinks.

Animated in an incredibly detailed stop-motion style with 3D-printed figures, Anomalisa is a film that opens itself up gradually, reveling in small tics and awkward moments and everything left unsaid. Whether intentionally or inadvertently, Michael has cut himself off emotionally from everyone around him, keeping his headphones in as he walks through the airport, unwillingly engaging in small talk with his cab driver, and acting uncertain around the polite staff of his hotel. His few attempts at connection are somewhat awkward and ill-conceived, most noticeable in how he sputters his way through a drink with a former girlfriend, whom he left for no stated reason, who is still getting over the loss of him, and still questioning herself because of it. Though he seems rueful, Michael is unable to explain himself, and they leave one another disappointed. Later, he finds a “toy” store that’s open late, looking for a gift for his son but eventually realizing this shop has more adult fare. He ends up purchasing a mechanical Japanese doll shaped like a geisha, perhaps an unconscious stand-in for the multiple women he no longer loves, preferring a robotic replacement for their human inadequacies. That Michael’s professional life is centered around customer service expertise is a blatant irony, but that knowledge allows viewers to see how he must put on an act when he is with other people, much like the sales representatives he advises. He must play at being a warm, sociable human being, despite hating the sound of every voice he hears, even with his wife and son. With Lisa, he can stop acting, and Continue reading CAPSULE: ANOMALISA (2015)

LIST CANDIDATE: ENTERTAINMENT (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Rick Alverson

FEATURING: Gregg Turkington

PLOT: A low-rent insult comedian who performs in a tux with a grotesque combover plays unappreciative dive bars throughout the Southwest on an increasingly surreal tour.

Still from Entertainment (2015)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: After another failed gig, the Comedian’s friend, a business consultant, suggests that the performer consider making his act “a little less weird.” We disagree.

COMMENTS: I appreciate a bad joke. It’s hard to write a bit that has the shape of a joke, complete with a setup and a punchline, but then fails to land properly—not something completely random, but a crack that’s just barely off, a jibe that an alien or madman might think is funny. Comedy interruptus: a joke that perversely strangles its own payoff. (Judd Nelson’s painful, sweaty monologues in The Dark Backward were built around a similar premise, although The American Astronaut‘s rambling “Hertz doughnut” bit is the most successful iteration of the trope I can think of). The nameless comedian of Entertainment deals exclusively is such jokes: he starts off with premises like “Why don’t rapists eat at TGI Fridays?” There is no possible successful punchline to that set-up; the joke, rather, is that any comedian would have such poor taste that he would even try out such a line.

The meta gets piled high in Entertainment. The Comedian’s routine, delivered from under a carefully styled oily combover, might have gone over with a crowd of irony-digging college hipsters, but he’s trying it out in working class gin joints. “I’ve traveled a long distance carrying these jokes in order to bring them here and thrust them into your fool faces,” he complains on stage, after a poke at prop comic Carrot Top earns him only a few token titters. At a country club gig, he improvises a bit where he picks up a trophy and pretends to shoot the audience, then makes fart noises for a couple of minutes before dropping the mike and walking off stage. “We’re not paying for that,” is the icy, but reasonable, response of the lady who booked him. There’s something horrifyingly Sisyphean in the idea of a comic who’s compelled to take the stage and bomb night after night in front of a disdainful crowd of miserabilist drunks.

The rest of the tour, the blank-faced Comedian stays in motel rooms or crashes on couches. He spends his free time alone taking in the desert sights (a car mysteriously upended in the middle of nowhere seems like the perfect metaphor for his own inexplicable career) or leaving pathetically mundane, never-answered messages on his estranged daughter’s phone. Between the melancholy vignettes and embarrassing failed comedy routines are plenty of surreal sights, particularly in the film’s last half hour. The tour increasingly takes its toll on the Comedian’s mental state, as events grow more and more fragmented and panicky towards the end. Public restrooms are particularly anxious locales; one of the film’s best scenes involves an ambiguous meeting with a nervous hanging out at an isolated rest stop, while another bathroom produces an even more scarring vision. The Comedian hangs out with a crowd who look like the Southwestern cousins of the folks from Gummo (I kept expecting a chair-bashing session to break out), leading to more odd moments. A hallucinatory guest spot on a Mexican telenovela rounds out the strangeness. Throughout, the soundtrack is omnipresent and intense, with a mix of anxious ambient drones and popular music numbers that range from the ethereal to the ironic. The overall effect is like discovering Andy Kaufman’s old Tony Clifton character has a tragic backstory and suffers from chronic depression, then watching his mental breakdown from the inside. The film is a bleak vision of complete artistic and personal frustration, yet it rings hellishly true.

Though the character is never named, star Gregg Turkington uses the same gimmick (minus the existential despair) when he performs as “Neil Hamburger” (“America’s Funnyman”).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Somewhere on the axis where David Lynch, Paul Thomas Anderson and Joey Bishop intersect… Weirdly compelling if student-y and unfocused…”–Kyle Smith, New York Post (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: CUBE (1997)

Cube has been promoted to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies. Please direct comments to the official Certified Weird entry.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Nicole de Boer, Maurice Dean Wint,

PLOT: Seven strangers awake in a cubical maze filled with deadly traps and work to find a way out.

Still from Cube (1997)
WHY IT SHOULD’T MAKE THE LIST: Cube is classic cult sci-fi/horror.  It’s intriguing, captivating, and smart, but follows a linear narrative and has characters with logical motivations. Some serious weirdness can be found in its ugly, recycled visuals (only two cubical rooms were built and used for the set design) and brooding  ambient soundtrack, but it’s all coherent enough to stand as a firmly established vision of the bleakness of modern life. It has “weird” ambitions, but ultimately finds itself in the category of intense sci-fi, not transcendental strangeness.

COMMENTS: Cube, much to its own advantage, is quite minimalist.  The setting of the film is a series of cubical rooms with distinctively ugly color palettes. Decorated with different kinds of high-tech architectural patterns and shapes, the rooms evoke conceptual mathematics, serving as a sort of pastiche of NASA blueprints or military designs. The characters are dressed identically, have no memory of how they got in the cube, and each possesses some kind of useful skill. There is a math student, a cop, a medical professional, an escape artist, an exterior designer, and an autistic young man with a penchant for solving complicated arithmetic problems in his head. The opening scene shows a nameless character who steps into a room only to meet his ill fate with a swift slice and dice, painting the floor in symmetrical pieces of his bloody corpse before we see the film’s title shot over a background of blinding white light.

The danger lurking ahead is now obvious and imminent: some of the rooms have traps, and others do not. The suspense is heightened by the ignorance of the characters; we only know as much as they do, almost nothing at all. Apparently kidnapped and held against their will, they all work together to escape the cube, only to find that their biggest threat to one another is each other. One would probably wonder how such a simple idea could ever look so cool, but the atmosphere of the movie drives it forward, forcing us to develop our own ideas about what the cube is and why it was made.

An attempt at something of an explanation starts to develop around the mid-point, and here frustration rears its ugly head. (It may also have been slightly irresponsible to cast Maurice Dean Wint as Quentin, seeing that he is the only actor in the movie that is black and he is shown to be significantly more violent and unhinged than the others). Political and personal gripes aside, the delight in watching these characters hopelessly delve into their own survival emulates from the paranoia that comes from their ignorance. Plus, the gory deaths don’t hamper the entertainment value one bit. Face melting acid traps, wires that cut through skin and bone, sound-activated blades—this particular trap is the movie’s riveting and suspenseful center piece—and an anger-prone cop (a relevant touch in lieu of recent national tragedies) provide ample intensity, violence, and a sinister atmosphere that make Cube a force to be reckoned with. Its near immediate elevation to cult status was no surprise, as DVD sales and rentals (remember rentals?) were much higher than usual for a low budget Canadian movie with a cast of unknowns.

Aside from the suspense rooted in escaping bloody doom, there is a plethora of mind candy along the way, most of it rooted in mathematics and philosophy. Rooms are numbered in sequenced patterns of exponents of prime numbers, and while the math wizard works toward finding a way past the traps, she makes chicken scratches in the shiny metal doors of the cubes using buttons off her shirt. It’s here when the audience is treated to a creepy musical palette of hushed whispers and echoing warped synthesizers, as they fall further down into a bleak realm of chaotic peril. Whenever they make progress towards finding a way out, new problems arise, whether it is a miscalculation or anger and frustration stemming from the ever-growing exhaustion of the subjects. Cube twists and turns through suspicions and possible explanations. Did aliens build the cube, or was it the government? Is there a way out or are they all supposed to die? All of it is punctuated by violent gore, a catharsis for life’s impending ambiguities.

Symbolically, life inside the Cube is no different than life outside of it, full of unanswered questions, meaningless death, and a kind of endless striving towards a future that might not ever happen. Some of its more generic ideas stem from the dangers of a military-industrial complex, human purpose, and the endless grind of working towards nothing/death. There is nihilism, hope, confusion, betrayal and even compassion to be found inside of the cube, evidenced by the varying attitudes and behaviors of the poor souls who are trapped inside.  One particularly powerful component of the intended symbolic gesture comes from the character Worth (David Hewlett) when he is reluctant to leave the cube. “What is out there?” inquires Leaven (Nicole de Boer). There is an intense close up of a whiteout, the apparent exit, as he replies: “Boundless human stupidity.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Inside the cube, the lack of information, the strange Jack Kirbyesque details on the walls and the absence of any outside world makes the environment of the film timeless and suitably, subtly existential.”–Alex Fitch, Electric Sheep (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Tona,” who said it was “weird for the ambiguity, the paranoic atmosphere.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)