Tag Archives: Experimental

SHORT: WHAT DID JACK DO? (2017)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: David Lynch

PLOT: A detective interrogates a monkey suspected of murder.

Still from What Did Jack Do (2017)

COMMENTS: David Lynch made the curious short “What Did Jack Do?” in 2017 for a French museum exhibit, and screened it once more at his own Festival of Disruption in 2018. Other than that, this bit of monkey business was an overlooked footnote in his filmography, until Netflix dropped it onto their streaming service on January 20, 2020 (on Lynch’s 74th birthday).

Shot in Eraserheadian black and white, with Lynchian signatures like coffee and a left-field musical number1, “Jack” is basically a two-hander (almost a one-hander, since Lynch not only plays the interrogating detective, but also provides the monkey’s voice). There is a plot, of sorts, but mostly, its the detective and his simian suspect trading absurdist quips that occupy a space between the ineffably sinister and the ambiguously cliched: “Don’t worry. I’ve heard the phrase ‘birds of a feather flock together.’ A perceived fundamental. There are, of course, exceptions.”

“What Did Jack Do?” is, in essence, Lynch futzing around with the Surrealist potentialities of Syncro-Vox—the technique pioneered in the 1950s in which human lips are superimposed over animals or animated characters. Lynch’s experiment is extremely sophisticated, with his usual attention to detail: visually, the lips are blended so well that they almost pass as a real feature of the Capuchin monkey, remaining just off enough to supply an uncanny undertone that harmonizes wonderfully with the overt absurdity of a talking monkey in a suit and tie. Jack’s face is, of course, blank, and his gaze flits randomly, but depending on dialogue Lynch chooses to put in his mouth he can appear lovesick, resentful, or nervous. That’s a wonderful surrealist illusion. The result, while arguably slim, is still arresting and worth your time—and it goes without saying, a must-see for Lynch completists.

I showed it to a young Lynch neophyte; her main takeaway was “Jack is cute!”

Netflix’s business practices give them a lot to answer for, but they deserve credit when they get it right.  “What Did Jack Do?” is a super-niche offering that won’t be bringing the streamer new subscribers, but they’ve done a hell of a service to the cinephile community by making it available at all.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s weird as hell, man, and I can’t get enough of it.”–Miles Surrey, The Ringer (Netflix release)

CAPSULE: JUBILEE (1978)

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DIRECTED BY: Derek Jarman

FEATURING: Jenny Runacre, Jordan, Toyah Willcox, Nell Campbell (as Little Nell), Jack Birkett, Richard O’Brien

PLOT: Queen Elizabeth I requests her court sorcerer to summon the spirit Ariel to show her Britain’s future, and witnesses a bleak vision of apocalyptic decay.

Still from Jubilee (1978)

COMMENTS: An occasionally brilliant and often muddled mess of an artwork, Derek Jarman’s Jubilee lurks in a strange netherworld of identification. This is, admittedly, a typical “problem” for the movies that end up on the shores of this weird internet isle of ours, and it is a credit, in a way, to Jarman’s particular particularity that his movies tend to be both too weird to be arty while also being too arty to be weird. It’s a strange categorization, to be sure, and the call I made in not considering Jubilee Apocrypha-worthy was a tough one.

Jubilee is an Elizabethan period piece that flashes forward to then-contemporary 1970s London, which was in economic doldrums and still riddled with bombed-out, clapped-out, and otherwise derelict streets and homes. The narrative seems full of plot holes, but that fits nicely with the punk aesthetic that Jarman was, depending upon your perspective, either cynically celebrating or subtly satirizing. Clothes full of holes, ‘zine literature smashed together from ripped-up sources, and even punk’s musical style: all of it was intended to reflect decay, despair, and anger. These elements dovetail in Jubilee as we watch a loose gang of nihilistic young women spend their time breaking things and people, all while incongruously sucking up to the mysterious, flamboyant, and giggle-prone one-man superpower, “Borgia Ginz,” a music and media mogul.

The tone of Jubilee veers in as many directions as the scattershot narrative. There’s a heartwarming (if controversial) romance between two men (who are possibly brothers; the explanation is neither clear nor reliable), who eventually allow a young female artist into their relationship. But there’s also malignance. “Bod” and “Mad” (two of the girl gang members, possibly lovers) wantonly harass and then beat up a diner waitress early in the film, and then continue this cruel streak throughout. “Amyl Nitrate”, played by Punk-era icon Jordan, oscillates between petulant monologues (in the form of her world history she’s writing) and tender gestures with “Crabs” (Little Nell, whose status as the most convincing actor in the movie is saying something). And of course, what 1978 anarchic-socio-commentary-guerilla film would be complete without a young Adam Ant (then something of a nobody) as the latest protégé of Jack Birkett’s other-worldly, hyper-energized Borgia Ginz?

Derek Jarman was an artist of considerable talent: be it in the world of painting, production design, or direction. He was also someone to whom no friend or overseer (if there were any) could say “no.” While this allowed for a far more interesting oeuvre than might have existed otherwise, it was also to that oeuvre’s occasional detriment. What could have a tighter, tidier Jubilee looked like? I know, I know: I just lamented a lack of tightness and tidiness in a punk movie about the punk ethos, so perhaps I’m missing the point. But bearing that in mind, even I couldn’t help but be impressed with this glorious mess of style, pathos, music, and philosophy.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Jubilee might be most appreciated by those who are able to embrace its cult movie aspects. Its enigmas and failings may not always be as compelling or as endearing as those found in the best-known cult films but some of Jubilee‘s idiosyncratic content does work to position the film squarely within the wild terrain of the cult film corpus.”–Lee Broughton, Pop Matters (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: REDOUBT (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Matthew Barney

FEATURING: Anette Wachter, Matthew Barney, Eleanor Bauer, Laura Stokes, K.J. Holmes

PLOT: In remote Idaho, Diana and her two assistants hunt, observed by an Engraver.

Still from Redoubt (2019)

COMMENTS: A dialogue-free exploration of the myth of Diana the Huntress set in Idaho’s ridiculously beautiful Sawtooth Mountains, Redoubt is a level beyond art-house; it’s art installation. Diana (played by U.S. National Rifle Team member Anette Wachter) is a mysterious sharpshooter camping in a tent in the wilderness. She’s accompanied by two female assistants, contortionists who sleep together in a hammock tied high in the pines and who express themselves solely through interpretive dance. Meanwhile, an Engraver (Barney himself: the character seems to be both a forest ranger and an artist) ventures into the mountains and etches landscapes. At night, he returns to his trailer, where a woman (presumably his wife) electroplates the day’s metal engravings; she’s also working on an abstract sculpture based on a constellation. We observe every step in the creative process. At one point the Engraver watches a Native American woman perform a hoop dance at an American Legion building in an otherwise deserted town. The “action” is divided into a series of “hunts,” although there is little story development. Eventually, Diana catches the Engraver spying on her, shoots one of his engravings, and finally sets a pack of wolves loose in his trailer. Unlike the mythological Acateon, who was transformed into a stag and killed by his own hunting dogs after catching a glimpse of the goddess bathing nude, the Engraver merits divine wrath simply by the act of creating his art, as if act of trying to capture nature is itself a transgression.

There is some fantastic imagery here, capped by the National Geographic-style mountain cinematography (at one point, it captures an avalanche) and the finale which shows the artist’s lair chewed over by lupine chaos. If you enjoy the kinesthetics of the human body in motion, the limber dancing (by professionals who are often clad in long johns) will have an additional appeal. The austerity of the glacially-paced, low-narrative presentation, accompanied only by minimalistic music and the sounds of footsteps in snow and occasional bird calls, is as cold as an Idaho morning, however, and will limit Redoubt‘s appeal. Nonetheless, this is Matthew Barney’s version of an accessible art-house film.

At this point, you might be wondering, “where have I heard the name Matthew Barney?” Barney is the sculptor/filmmaker responsible for the celebrated/infamous films that comprise the Cremaster cycle (which featured hermetic symbolism, bizarre costuming, and such provocative imagery as a bee flying out of a man’s penis). He followed that performance up with the 330-minute scatological film opera River of Fundament. His films incorporate his sculptures and other multimedia (a book accompanies each), and are typically screened only at museums. Only once1 has Barney allowed his work to appear outside of a museum setting: The Order, a 30-minute re-edit of Cremaster 3, which was printed in limited quantities and commands a premium on the secondary market. Redoubt represents, to my knowledge, the first time he has worked with an actual film distributor (Grasshopper). It’s being released this winter to a few select art-house cinemas as well as the usual museums, which is a welcome development. (You can check out the screening schedule at Grasshopper’s website). The scarcity of Barney’s work contributes greatly to its legendary status, but let’s hope that the increased distribution of Redoubt represents a loosening of the artist’s strictures. Maybe as he ages and mellows he’ll break his vow to never release the Cremasters commercially. Or at least let us poor schlubs see River of Fundament on Blu-ray. Probably not, but hope springs eternal.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an eminently accessible version of the avant-garde.”–Pat Brown, Slant (contemporaneous)