Tag Archives: Experimental

CAPSULE: THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Orson Welles

FEATURING: John Huston, , Peter Bogdanovich, Susan Strasberg, Norman Foster, Robert Random

PLOT: On the last day of his life, director Jake Hannaford shares footage from the movie he’s been trying to complete despite a desperate lack of funding, the disappearance of his leading actor, and the doubts of his crew, his peers, and the Hollywood press.

Still from The Other Side of the Wind (2018)

COMMENTS: It’s natural to be wary of a movie where the story behind it is more interesting than the one on the screen. On the other hand, it’s arguable that Orson Welles never made a movie where that equation wasn’t in play. From his very first feature, a little picture about a newspaper publisher, the story off-camera has always been at least as compelling as the one made for public consumption, and usually with a good deal more tragedy attached. As the major studios turned against him and his efforts to assemble financing and infrastructure became more haphazard and idiosyncratic, the subject of Welles himself invariably took precedence over whatever story he actually hoped to tell.

But even by his own yardstick, the road to The Other Side of the Wind is unusually winding and protracted. Welles filmed over the course of six years on two continents, with multiple parts recast over the years and the lead role unfilled until Year 3, and with the filmmaker insisting that there was still more to shoot. Completion was held up by variety of obstacles, including producer embezzlement, flooding in Spain, Hollywood indifference, and the Iranian revolution. Like so many of Welles’ projects, Wind would remain unfinished at the time of his death, another dream lost to history… until, 42 years after principal photography wrapped, a team of Welles collaborators and admirers endeavored to assemble the many pieces of his last great work into a form he might have intended. (Whatever you may think of Netflix, they did cinema history a favor by not only bankrolling this effort but by releasing it alongside a documentary about Welles’ torturous efforts to complete the film, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead. It’s an invaluable companion piece for anyone interested in this chapter of the great man’s legendarily troubled career.)

It is impossible to know how successfully this reconstruction got to the vision locked inside Welles’ head. After all, Welles himself changed his intentions throughout production. Furthermore, he seems to have been going for something entirely new and alien to him. Welles made much of the fact that neither the framing film or Jake Hannaford’s work are meant to be in a style in any way recognizable as his own, so we can’t even rely upon the director’s previous works as a guide. Today, we recognize Welles’ use of improvisation and documentary techniques as what we’ve come to call “mockumentary,” but in the early 70s, there was very little precedent (except, possibly, Welles’ own “War of the Worlds”). But we know enough of Welles’ increasing focus on the subjects of abandonment, thwarted ambition, and betrayal to recognize that Wind is not only a continuation of those themes but maybe his most personal exploration of them.

Welles denied suggestions that the film was autobiographical, which Continue reading CAPSULE: THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (2018)

CAPSULE: ANATOMY OF HELL (2004)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Amira Casar, Rocco Siffredi, voice of Catherine Breillat

PLOT: A woman pays a gay man to observe her intimate moments for four nights.

Still from Anatomy of Hell (2004)

COMMENTS: Sartre said Hell is other people. Catherine Breillat says Hell is other people’s bodies; or, more specifically, other genders’ bodies; or, when you get right down to it, women’s bodies.

A Woman goes to a gay disco and slits her wrists in the bathroom. She’s rescued by a gay Man, who takes her to a clinic to be stitched up. The Woman proposes to pay him to “watch her when she’s unwatchable.” He goes to her house for four nights, pours himself a few fingers of Jack Daniels to help him make it through the night, and they talk while she lies naked and exposed. “They fragility of female flesh inspires disgust or brutality,” he muses. “The veils [men] adorn us with anticipate our shrouds,” the Woman proclaims. (The conversation is not intended to be naturalistic; it’s a staged Platonic dialogue with a poetic overlay). While never verbally expressing anything but disgust for the Woman, the Man is drawn to experiment intimately with her body (including scenes involving garden tools, and worse). Then the arrangement ends. He is moved, and, in what may be a fantasy sequence, commits an act of brutality. That’s it; it’s partially successful conversion therapy.

Siffredi, a pornographic actor best known for his recurring “Buttman” character, turns out to be a surprisingly capable actor—although his moods are restricted to disgust and melancholy, both simmering. Casar is beautiful as she lounges around naked, but her role could be played by almost any beautiful nude actress. Although she shows more range than Siffredi, as any actress might, she has trouble putting across dialogue like “in intercourse, the act isn’t what matters, but its meaning.” Casar’s body double is anatomically correct. Breillat herself dubs the thoughts for both parties.  And that’s it for the acting—which is a problem, in what’s basically a character-driven two-hander (explicit though it is, it’s so anti-erotic that could never make the grade as a one-hander).

On release, Anatomy of Hell received a lot of understandable criticism for its overly-simplistic brand of radical gender philosophy. Taken literally, the film argues (explicitly and didactically, despite the poetic trappings) that men are disgusted by women’s bodies and instinctively long to damage them—and that this misogyny is even more pronounced in gay men. That’s not a position I would want to defend in a Ph.D. thesis. But while that literal reading is both ridiculous and offensive, there is another layer to the film that is hopeful. Despite his disgust at The Woman’s body, The Man is eventually seduced by it. And after the job is done, he finds himself changed by the experience: “I experienced total intimacy with her. And I don’t even know her name.” Radical posturing aside, Anatomy of Hell at least partly celebrates the alchemy of shared human bodies: that point when carnal disgust is overcome and physical commingling becomes a spiritual experience. Look past words to the magic of bodies, this wordy picture whispers. Though mercifully short, Anatomy of Hell is a hard watch, composed of dull, pseudo-profound dialogues broken by shock sequences designed to reinforce its putative thesis that female bodies are disgusting. It’s not recommended, but—if you can bypass the untenable literal reading its characters propose—this erotic experiment is more thought-provoking than its detractors suggest.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“But sometimes [Breillat] is just plain goofy, as in ‘Anatomy of Hell,’ which plays like porn dubbed by bitter deconstructionist theoreticians.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Motyka, who asked for more Breillat reviews and stated that Anatomy of Hell was “especially worth looking at, because of its rejection of a traditional plot.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: SYMBIOSPYCHOTAXIPLASM: TAKE ONE (1968)

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Recommended

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: EDWARD II (1991)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Derek Jarman

FEATURING: Steven Waddington, Tilda Swinton, Andrew Tiernan, Nigel Terry

PLOT: Upon the death of his father, Edward II lifts the banishment of his friend and lover, Piers Gaveston; in response, his royal court rebels and civil war ensues.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Unlike many period pieces, this has homoerotic dance interludes, a serenade crooned by Annie Lennox, and a chilling scene in which Tilda Swinton’s Queen Isabella lustily bites the neck of a disloyal nobleman. But beyond the obvious oddities, Edward II‘s narrative pinches more than flows, its disjointed scenes rendering the film’s array into a garment that juts out in disquieting spikes at the observer.

COMMENTS: To fully appreciate what is going on in Edward II, one must have a decent grip on England’s 14th-century history, 16th-century theatre, and 20th-century cinema. History’s pertinence pools sickly within the bumps and cracks of Derek Jarman’s austere sets, casting its gloomy but far-reaching glow under the director’s harsh lighting. The doomed players—the king and his lover; the queen, and hers—are archetypal tragic figures attired in smart modern dress. Gilded glamor and radiant red splatters the creaking, decaying artifice of the seat of English power as the flawed monarch fights vainly to secure first the safety of his lover, Gaveston, and then his own. Through Edward II, Jarman grinds his axe in the Middle Ages before taking it to the neck of contemporary England.

Three times it is read that Edward II’s father has died, and three times it is read that Piers Gaveston’s banishment has thus been rendered null and void. To the chagrin of all but the new king, Gaveston returns from France, enchanting Edward anew, and infuriating the establishment. Edward sees nothing but beauty in Gaveston, and feels nothing but his love. Edward’s queen, Isabella, feels spurned, and considers self-exile until Mortimer, the commander of England’s armed forces, convinces her that he has a plan. His plan unfolds, and Edward grudgingly banishes Gaveston once more. But the plan folds in on it itself, and the murky doings of the discontented nobles trigger a series of upsets, turn-abouts, and murders.

This is a juicy tale, to be sure, and that juiciness is reinforced by Jarman’s aesthetic. King Edward’s private haven is a square pool of murky water, tucked away in a basement chamber with rusted-steel walls; upon his second banishment, Gaveston endures a gauntlet of spitting nobles; and blood, when it appears, is ample, particularly after the queen renders harmless an erstwhile ally. The lines are delivered wetly, as well. The actors are not slurping and sputtering, but the sound design emphasizes the wetness of the lips, the throaty fullness of exhortations. The slick-slap of words is brought forward in the sound design and rendered at full volume—dialogue delivered in drenched sorrow.

Whether or not the time-jumping anachronism, accentuated performances, and installation-style shots and sets work for you will hinge on whether you are open to the full Derek Jarman experience. An avid gay rights activist, Jarman eschews any ambiguity about the actual monarch, and is willing, able, and eager to toss aside two things: any cinematic conventions that may stand between him and making beautiful, painterly images, and any staid historicism that may stand between him and his proudly gay point of view. It opens with a conversation between Gaveston and a traveler; two men unabashedly make love behind them. It closes with a lament from Edward playing over shots of assembled, real-life gay rights activists. Derek Jarman had a clear world-view, and in Marlowe’s play, he found the perfect framework to display his classically peculiar visual élan while simultaneously preaching his message.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Derek Jarman’s phantasmagoric, outrageously stylized interpretation of the Christopher Marlowe play, is more a creature of its director’s sensibility than its creator’s… In [Jarman’s] hands, Edward II has become a chic melodrama that’s part art object, part The Valley of the Dolls.” -Hal Hinson, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE IDIOTS (1998)

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Idioterne; AKA Dogma2: The Idiots

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Bodil Jørgensen, Jens Albinus, Anne Louise Hassing

PLOT: A Danish commune finds meaning and community by acting like “idiots” (i.e., pretending to be mentally disabled), especially in public).

Still from The Idiots (1998)

COMMENTS: As Karen dines alone at a restaurant, she observes a caretaker attempting to feed two adult males who keep wandering over to disturb the other diners, insistently saying “hi” and grabbing the napkins off the table. Unperturbed when Stoffer, one of these “idiots,” grabs her hand, she follows the group outside, and even joins them in the taxicab when Stoffer refuses to release his grip. She is intrigued to discover the performance was all a sham, and Stoffer is actually the intelligent leader of a small, cult-like commune who stage these performances in restaurants, factory tours, swimming pools, office board meetings, and the like.

Far from being offended, Karen is intrigued enough to join the group. The rest of the movie then follows their antics as individual members seek to unleash their “inner idiot” by “spazzing,” mostly in public, but also among themselves. Although the movie establishes dynamics between the characters, in the end, it’s a bit like watching an unscripted, non-comedic version of Jackass—or, in its grosser moments, like scaled-back versions of the Vienna Actionists’ scat orgy in Sweet Movie. Possible motivations for this behavior are hinted at—shocking the bourgeois, playing a game, returning to a state of innocence, mocking the handicapped, championing abnormality, participating in a ritualistic group therapy—but ultimately, the idiots’ reasons for their idiocy remain as inscrutably individual as their activities are indisputably idiotic.

The movie is only watchable in a geek-show sort of way—up until a brilliantly executed final spazz that suddenly supplies a retroactive emotional heft to the entire exercise. That climax exists in an ambiguous space somewhere between catharsis and comeuppance, and raises the stakes of the questions that have been festering in our minds about these idiots. Is elective idiocy an insincere affectation, an emotional affliction, or a form of transcendence? Like their director, the idiots may be addicted to making people uncomfortable, but there is also a genuine sadness at the core of the exercise—at least, for some of the participants.

The Idiots is a Dogma 95 film; that is to say, it (aspirationally) follows the rules laid out in the Dogme 95 manifesto intended to revitalize cinema by de-emphasizing production values and returning to the roots of drama. Dogma films were intended to have no non-diegetic music (a rule von Trier violates in the very first scene), to be shot entirely on location, to use only natural light and handheld cameras, etc.: essentially, every story was to be filmed as if it was being captured by a television news crew. Despite co-founding the short-lived movement with Thomas Vinterberg, The Idiots was von Trier’s only Dogma movie. His next film, Dancer in the Dark, was a magical realist musical that was almost as far away from the Dogma credo as imaginable, while still remaining in the limits of the art-house film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This director, in other words, is replaying the guerrilla-theater spirit of the ’60s, but with the cleansing psychodramatic mysticism of a digital-age Ingmar Bergman.”–Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)

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