Tag Archives: Expressionism

CAPSULES: THE TALES OF HOFFMAN (1951)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: , Emeric Pressburger

FEATURING: Robert Rounseville, Robert Helpmann, Pamela Brown, Moria Shearer, Leonide Massine, Ludmilla Tcherina, Ann Ayars

PLOT: During the intermission of a ballet, the poet Hoffman tells a drinking party stories of three women whom he has loved and lost: an automaton, a courtesan, and an ailing singer.

Still from Tales of Hoffman (1951)

COMMENTS: Hoffman is a layer-cake of high art contributions: starting with Jacques Offenbach’s opera “Tales of Hoffman,” edited and altered to fit the running time and the producer’s fancies, with the libretto translated into English for the first time, adding an entirely new ballet scene and requiring extensive choreography for the rest of the acts, staged on lavish sets designed by unsung hero Hein Heckroth, and ultimately delivered through the medium of cinema and a magical camera. Offenbach’s final opus, completed only months before the composer’s death in 1819, seems an unlikely candidate for the most lavish cinematic opera ever filmed. Unlike the major works of Wagner, Mozart, or Bizet, it contains no well-known arias or overtures. What it does offer is a number of evocative scene-changes through a variety of romantic locales, which was what likely attracted and Emeric Pressburger (known, together with their customary production team, as “the Archers”) to the project.

Robert Rounseville makes for a bland Hoffmann; he was cast primarily because he played the part on stage, but in his defense he was one of the only actors to sing his own part (most were dubbed and performed while lip-syncing). Lithe ballerina Moria Shearer (from The Red Shoes) takes the spotlight for two top-notch dances, as the sinuous female dragonfly in the opening ballet and in a comic mode as the stiff automaton. With his expressive eyes and even more expressive eyebrows, Robert Helpmann snakes through the stories (and steals every scene) as Hoffman’s eternally recurring Satanic antagonist; a former dancer and choreographer, he performs no grand jeté‘s here, but always moves purposefully and gracefully. It’s fair to say he is the film’s onscreen star: usually, the actors are hardly more significant than the custom-built marionettes.

The sets, dances, wardrobes, and optics drive the experience, not the actors or narrative. Hoffman tours four major settings—the lily pad lake where the dragonflies perform their mating dance; the workshop of the automaton-maker, peopled with marionettes; the decadent Venice of courtesans; the classical marble halls of the singer’s villa on a remote Greek island—in addition to several minor sets (like the beer hall). Each has its own dominant color scheme: green for the dragonflies, yellow for the living dolls, red for the gondolas and bordellos of Venice, and blue for the Greek island. The Continue reading CAPSULES: THE TALES OF HOFFMAN (1951)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (2019)

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Must See

(For Canadians)

Recommended

(For normal people)

DIRECTED BY: Matthew Rankin

FEATURING: Dan Beirne, Sarianne Cormier, Seán Cullen,

PLOT: William Lyon Mackenzie King modestly rises to the plateau of Canadian supremacy to become Prime Minister.

Still from "The Twentieth Century" (2019)

COMMENTS: During my first visit to Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival in 2017, I made the acquaintance of several Canadian college students. I had the opportunity to talk politics with one of them—a hot topic at the time. One young man, in particular, was full of passion and ideals, like many college students. But he was very Canadian about it. No fan of Trudeau (“too centrist”), he was also skeptical of the recently elected French president Emmanuel Macron. Despite the fervor I knew burned within him, the most damning criticism of the French prez he dared speak was: “too centrist.” He limited his body language to a slightly uncomfortable sidelong glance.

Canada’s subdued idealism is captured flawlessly in Rankin’s directorial feature debut, The Twentieth Century. Structured as a 1940s melodrama and styled as a 1920s Expressionist nightmare, its tone fits squarely (and appropriately) in the realm of a 1930s screwball comedy of manners. Our hero (though he would be loathe to designate himself so loftily) is the ever well-intentioned and deferential William Lyon Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne, reminiscent of also-Canadian comedian Martin Short). King’s mother long ago had a vision of her son becoming Prime Minister, and though his path to success is long and trying—nigh thwarted at times by a sinister doctor, an embarrassing shoe fetish, and a fascistic Governor General—King ultimately defeats the love-cult Quebecois separatist candidate to become the most foremost (foremostest?) among Canadian equals.

As a comedy, The Twentieth Century is pure gold. I ultimately gave up writing down amusing quotes as Rankin & Co. continued to hammer home just how incredibly quaint, civil, and bizarre they and their fellow citizens were and continue to be. (One recurring mantra stands out that sums up the Canadian experience: “…as certain as a winter’s day in Springtime.”) All the sets and special effects are Maddin-esque, to the point that I think the Guy’s gone mainstream (in Canada, anyway). The villains are all cartoonishly evil, the heroes are all cartoonishly mild-mannered, and Winnipeg is dismissed as the home of “heroin, bare naked ladies, and reasonably-priced furniture”.

Though we’ve dropped the “Why It Won’t Make the List” blurb, I feel it necessary to mention in case I’m called out about this omission. Quite a lot of weird goings-on do go on (ejaculating cactus metaphor, blind-folded-ice-floe marriage ceremony, and PM Bert Harper impaled by narwhal, among them), but ultimately it feels like the film is trying too hard with that angle, drawing too much attention to the oddities instead of letting them play on the fringes. (Even its poster crows, “…men play women and women play men!” So what?) The Twentieth Century succeeds brilliantly in being funny, however, and that’s something to actually crow aboot.

Gregory J. Smalley adds: I think we can now officially say that Guy Maddin isn’t an auteur; he’s a genre. The Twentieth Century proves that Guy Maddin movies need not be made by Guy Maddin.[efn_note]Crime Wave (1985) proved this maxim was true even before there were Guy Maddin movies to emulate.[/efn_note] Rankin isn’t even trying to hide Guy’s influence; as a humble and patriotic Canadian, he’s embracing his national heritage. But it works, totally. If you’re a director making a film noir, you include shadowy lighting, a femme fatale, and a hard-drinking gumshoe. If you’re a director making a Guy Maddin movie, you include Expressionist landscapes, a timid hero plagued by sexual fetishes, and Louis Negin in drag.

Obviously, Giles’ last paragraph anticipates that I would object to his not nominating this film as an Apocrypha Candidate.  And I do. The Twentieth Century has an ejaculating cactus. That should automatically make it a candidate as one of the weirdest films of all time. Don’t overthink these things.

I know little about William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s three-time Prime Minister and FDR contemporary, but I think this biopic may not be completely accurate. Per Wikipedia, King secretly believed in spiritualism and used a medium to speak to his dead mother, historical trivia that may illuminate Negin’s role in the film. On the other hand, I highly doubt that King was a proud champion seal-clubber. In America, when we want to make a comedy about a revered leader, we cast Abe Lincoln as a vampire hunter—a take so ridiculous that it can’t be possibly seen as impolite or belittling. Canadians, on the other hand, are happy to depict a national hero as a man consumed by repressed ambition and an obsession with boot-sniffing. Superficially polite, actually subversive; that’s Canada for ya.

The Twentieth Century debuts tomorrow (Friday, Nov. 20) in virtual theaters (and possibly some live dates, too). Check The Twentieth Century home page for a list of vendors/venues.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a cheerfully bonkers satire… [Set in] a time when William Lyon Mackenzie King was busily striving to become Canada’s weirdest prime minister…”–Peter Howell, Toronto Star (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE AERIAL (2007)

La antena

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Esteban Sapir

FEATURING: Rafael Ferro, Sol Moreno, Alejandro Urdapilleta, Jonathan Sandor, Julieta Cardinali

PLOT: Mr. TV’s grip on the city is nearly complete, since he controls the only citizen known to be able to speak; however, not only does he want to control the people’s only voice, he wants to rob them of their words as well.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: A scattered analogy is the easiest way to argue this: The Aerial is Guy Maddin directs Alex ProyasDark City with a comic-book noir-Expressionist flair in a silent city whose populace communicates in colliding sub-, super-, and fore-titles.

COMMENTS: I generally don’t like my sociopolitical allegories to slap me so hard across the face, but The Aerial can feel free to slap me all it wants to. As you might infer from that mental image, Esteban Sapir’s movie is incredibly heavy-handed. It drops symbols like hot rocks (rocks so hot that, at one point, there’s a blistering contrast between some broadcasting baddies and their swastika-shaped device and the broadcasting goodies with their Star of David-shaped device). It’s overt in its rhetoric: “They have taken our voices, but we still have our words.” And even if the evil “Dr. Y” had a bigger mouth-enlarger-screen attached to him, it couldn’t have screamed “NAZI SCIENTIST!” any louder. But at this point I am hopeful that you’re wondering, “Just what is going on?”

What’s going on: Mr. TV lords over a voiceless city. The only person who can speak—“The Voice”—is controlled by Mr. TV and his ubiquitous media concern (TV billboards cover the metropolis, and the populace is fed with “TV Food”). The protagonist (credited only as “The Inventor”) loses his job with the TV monopoly after losing another balloon-man advertising sign (which is just what it sounds like). When a parcel containing “eyes” is delivered to the wrong address (and is conveniently received by the Inventor’s daughter), we learn that The Voice’s eyeless son can also speak. Meanwhile, Mr. TV conspires with crazy, creepy scientist Dr. Y to use The Voice to extract everyone’s words.

By now you probably see why I am feeling forgiving. Plus, the movie has a constant visual *pop*. Going into it, I wondered at the “very little dialogue” remark in its description. That is a bald-faced lie. There’s plenty of dialogue, and it is All Over The Screen. Not being a Spanish-speaker, I read the subtitles, but these were subtitles for everywhere-titles. They moved like hands on a watch, they were completed with “o”s from a smoke ring, and they were hidden behind fingers before a reveal. This town, though voiceless, is full of communication: the citizens read these words that are “spoken”. Even the blind boy “reads lips” by feeling the text. This gimmick was astounding to behold, and marvelously executed.

The rest of the movie’s aesthetic is just as lively, feeling at times like something from Dziga Vertov after he slammed back a samovar of strong tea. The visual mash-up (piano hands playing a typewriter while a ballerina in a snow globe desperately maneuvers what looked like a DDR challenge, for example) is consistent throughout, and although patently artificial, feels natural. Nothing looks cheap, and the film is helped in no small part by the actors as they deftly walk the perilous tightrope of Expressionism and film noir styles. I still feel The Aerial‘s energy, and so must stop myself. Suffice it to say, I wish more moralistic beatings were this pleasurable to suffer through.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It has a deeply weird story that appears to have a number of interpretations, or variations on a theme: the iniquities of media mind-control… Try as I might, I couldn’t make friends with La Antena, despite its distinctiveness and self-possession. There was something whimsical and indulgent about it, and its convoluted, flimsy narrative – oddly forgettable – seemed to have no traction.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

366. THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920)

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

“Isn’t it true—it’s the Director who’s insane!”–The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Friedrich Feher, , Lil Dagover

PLOT: A young man, Francis, sits on a bench in the garden of an insane asylum; when a woman walks by in a trance, he explains to a bystander that she is his fiancée, and launches into the strange story of how she ended up here. He tells the tale of how a mesmerist, Dr. Caligari, came to his town with a sideshow, exhibiting a “somnambulist” who predicted the deaths of citizens who were later found murdered. After his best friend and romantic rival turns up among the victims, Francis launches his own investigation into Caligari, tracking him to the insane asylum where he discovers that the doctor, under a different name, is actually the director of the facility…

Still from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

BACKGROUND:

  •  The script was co-written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, two pacifists. Mayer had feigned madness to escape military service during World War I. Despite signing a contract allowing the producer to make whatever changes he deemed necessary, they strenuously objected to the addition (or the alteration; accounts differ) of the framing story.
  • discovered the script and was originally supposed to direct, until scheduling conflicts prevented his participation.
  • The early days of cinema were highly nationalistic. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was initially banned in France; not because of its content, but because it was German, and French distributors did not think they should have to face competition from a country they had just defeated in a war. But Caligari made such a sensation when film critic Louis Delluc arranged for it to be screened for charity that the French removed their ban on German pictures. The French even took to calling Expressionism “Caligarisme.” Caligari‘s release was also protested in the U.S. solely on the basis that it was a German production.
  • In screenings in the United States, Caligari was sometimes presented with a live theatrical epilogue explaining that the characters had fully recovered from their madness.
  • Among its many honors: ranked 235 in Sight & Sound’s critics’ poll of the greatest movies of all time; listed in Steven Schneider’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There’s no really a single frame of Caligari that stands out; it’s the cumulative effect of its Cubist settings, the spiky windows and dark alleys winding at weird angles, that gets under your skin.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Slanted city; greasepaint somnambulist; you must become Caligari

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s arguably: the first classic horror movie. The first classic Expressionist movie. Cinema’s first twist ending. The first movie shot from a perspective of radical subjectivity. The godfather of Surrealist film. And it still creeps you out today. It’s the first weird movie. Caligari‘s blood still flows through everything we love.


Blu-ray trailer for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

COMMENTS: The entire plot of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari could be thoroughly summarized in one medium-sized paragraph. There is little Continue reading 366. THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920)