Tag Archives: Expressionism

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)

365. DR. CALIGARI (1989)

“This film is like the offspring of Cronenberg and Troma.”–Luther Phillips, “The Life and Times of Stephen Sayadian”

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Madeleine Reynal, Laura Albert, John Durbin, Fox Harris

PLOT: Mrs. Van Houten is suffering from “nympholepsy” and erotic nightmares; her husband takes her to the Caligari Insane Asylum to be treated by the controversial granddaughter of Dr. Caligari (also named “Dr. Caligari”). A couple of her co-workers are concerned about the fact that seventeen of Caligari’s former patients have been “irreversibly warped,” and scheme to get her fired and rescue Mrs. Van Houten from her care. But Dr. Caligari refuses to accept the asylum director’s demands, and her experiments in neurological personality transfer intensify.

Still from Dr. Caligari (1989)

BACKGROUND:

  • Stephen Sayadian, who worked as an advertiser and a photographer for “Hustler,” made a couple of hardcore pornographic films under the pseudonym “Rinse Dream.” Nightdreams (1981) and Cafe Flesh (1982) were not mere wank material, however, but highly surreal (if explicit) avant-garde experiments that were often more disturbing than erotic. Dr. Caligari was his first and only attempt to make a (relatively) mainstream feature film.
  • The financier told Sayadian he could write and film whatever he wanted, but he had to use the “Caligari” name in the title.
  • As was the case with his other cult films, Dr. Caligari was co-written with Jerry Stahl, another interesting character whose memoir “Permanent Midnight” (later made into a movie) is one of the best first-hand accounts of heroin addiction ever written.
  • Dr. Caligari briefly played as a midnight movie under the title Dr. Caligari 3000. It gained a small cult following on VHS. The film’s executive producer, Joseph F. Robertson, was a porno executive who later formed Excalibur Video, at one time the Internet’s largest adult video mail order site. He kept the exclusive distribution rights to the film with Excalibur, but his plans to release more low-budget cult films never materialized. When Robertson sold Excalibur, the rights to Dr. Caligari went with it. The new owners have shown little interest in Dr. Caligari, but legitimate new copies of the film can only be ordered from Excalibur on DVD-R. Occasional rumors of a restoration and proper release of the film have yielded no results so far.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: During an erotic hallucination, Mrs. Van Houten opens a doorway a large pulsing column of flesh with scars and wounds and orifices that ooze candy and paint. A mouth with a waggling tongue appears on the bag of meat, growing until its larger than her head; she writes against it while the giant tongue licks her face.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Dalí boob crutches; giant tongue head licking; scarecrow fellatio therapy

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Although it plays at being a dark and disturbing trip into the twisted psychology of a nympho and her sadistic therapist, in reality Dr. Caligari is a campy flight that never takes itself the slightest bit seriously. Its overarching message seems to be “never seek psychiatric advice from a doctor who dresses in a vinyl minidress with metal cones attached to her breasts.” It’s well worth a watch if you’re looking for something sexy, surreal and silly to fill an hour and a half. “Chinchilla!”


Original trailer for Dr. Caligari

COMMENTS: Stephen Sayadian’s pornography background is evident from the very first sequence of Dr. Caligari. It’s a “nympholeptic”‘s eight-minute wordless dream of taking a bubble bath and being Continue reading 365. DR. CALIGARI (1989)

CAPSULE: MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS (1985)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Paul Schrader

CAST: Ken Ogata, Yasosuke Bando, Masayuki Shionoya, Toshiyuki Nagashima

PLOT: The life and works of celebrated Japanese writer Yukio Mishima are portrayed through a triptych of styles: events from his past life are in black and white, his last day is in color, and renditions of segments of three of his novels—The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House and Runaway Horses—are staged like plays on elaborate studio sets.

Still from Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the film’s narrative doesn’t strictly follow the conventions of a biopic, it’s not very strange either. The eccentric novel adaptations provide most of the weirdness, but their context is a rational exploration of the writer’s imaginarium and the subjects that most haunted him.

COMMENTS: In Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Paul Schrader is resolutely not interested in crafting a conventional biographical film; instead, he attempts to capture the essence of Yukio Mishima. This is the most distinctive and notable aspect of the movie. The black and white segments, which come closest to traditional biopic, follow Mishima’s course from his childhood as an alienated and sickly boy to his rigorous bodybuilding habit and the formation of his traditionalist private army. These scenes are succinct and concise, because they are complemented by the other sections. One is a similarly realistic account of Mishima’s last act on his final day with his militia, a coup d’état where he famously committed seppuku in the tradition of the samurai class of feudal Japan. The others are dreamy interpretations of passages from three of his books brought to life by vivid colors and operatic flair.

The approach is like a guided tour through Mishima’s mind. Each section’s themes interlock and complement each other so that a coherent picture of the author’s beliefs, desires, preoccupations and identity emerge from the whole. Such a method, while unconventional, provides an infinitely more personal exploration of its equally unique and unorthodox subject, and is so fluid and logical that it actually feels like the most natural way of portraying him. There is a sense that each scene, with its implications and images later mirrored by other segments, is meant as a meaningful contribution to the kaleidoscopic portrait of Mishima and thus, no moment gives the impression of being an obligatory stop in a stroll through the author’s life; the film is simply too dedicated to its subject for that sort of pedestrian storytelling.

Yukio Mishima was one of the most acclaimed writers of post-war Japan, nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. But he was also a very controversial figure, especially from the 1950’s on, where he started to fanatically espouse a traditionalist worldview that worshiped and fetishized the ways and aesthetics of feudal Japan, the strict code of honor of the samurai class and its devotion to the Emperor. It’s crucial to note that in post-war Japan, at the height of western influence, his nationalist and conservative leanings were more contrarian to the mentality of his countrymen than ever. The first scene shows an apprehensive but determined Mishima waking up in the morning, preparing himself for the act that he has been working on, not only as a political statement but as the culmination of his life, his most dedicated work of art. Throughout these early moments, as well as most of this section, Ken Ogata confers an ever-present austerity to his Mishima, and the other sections dealing with his formative years and artistic work, could be seen as peeling off this rigid exterior to explore the sensibility behind such an idiosyncratic figure.

The dramatizations of the novels are the most dreamlike of the styles: wonderfully beautiful and theatrical, with artificial set design and an extremely bright color pallet, they give the film a great visual richness and an oneiric aura. Mishima’s work was full of neurotic ruminations and anxieties, often communicated by troubled characters meditating on themes such as the nature of beauty, the Self, and, of course (and particularly in his later work), nationalism and the decadence of modern Japanese society with a wistful, melancholic longing for the glorious past. All of these preoccupations are present in the film; the writer’s relationship to them, and how they shape his life, takes center stage.

As such, the film is accessible to those unfamiliar with Mishima (although, naturally, more rewarding to readers), while encouraging further exploration. It potentially serves as a good starting point to hos work. As a fan of Mishima (which may give me a slight bias towards Schrader’s film), I couldn’t be more satisfied by such a devoted and organic portrait.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a dreamy, hypnotic meditation on the tragic intersection of Mishima’s oeuvre and existence that takes place as much in its subject’s fevered imagination as the outside world.”–Nathan Rabin, The A.V. Club (Blu-ray)

PRE-CODE HEAVEN: BLONDE VENUS (1932) AND THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934)

Among the most influential and potent of all director/actor collaborations is that of Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. They made seven films together, beginning with 1930’s infamous The Blue Angel. (For this film, each scene was shot twice, once with the actors speaking in German, then in English. If you haven’t seen it, go for the German version. It’s grimier.)

Blonde Venus (1932) is the least discussed and revisited of their work together. Apart from an embarrassing, but expressionistic, musical number, it’s something of a train wreck. Von Sternberg can’t be blamed. Paramount forced the dreadful script on him, and the director rightfully disowned it. There’s little originality in the story, and what enthusiasm von Sternberg  finds is, predictably, in the lensing.

Of course, he gives considerable attention to his discovery (and off-screen mistress) Dietrich. She’s a German cabaret singer here (imagine that), and Venus is occasionally a fatigued rehash of elements from Blue Angel. Its worst error is in in deviating from Dietrich’s femme fatale persona, miscasting her here in an empathetic role as a sacrificial wife/mother who becomes a cabaret singer and beds a New York club owner (Cary Grant) to finance treatment for her ill husband (Herbert Marshall). Hubby finds out. Hubby blows his top. She runs. He chases. She falls into ruin, literally becomes a prostitute, and gives up custody of their child. It limps along melodramatically, with the fallen penitential woman reaping what she has sown. Dietrich is better suited to getting away with her sins.

Frank about sexual mores (there’s also a brief skinny-dipping scene) it’s definitely pre-code, but that can’t save this from static dullness. Dietrich is statuesque and has a picture-perfect son in Dickie Moore (he was briefly one of the Little Rascals). Dietrich was a limited actress, but one who shrewdly utilized her limitations (and smokey voice) to perfection. However, cast as a pre-June Cleaver housewife, she is out of her range and falls flat. She’s best when she is exotic. Among the musical numbers,  she steals everything but the camera in “Hot Voodoo.” In spite of the blatant racism (black-faced chorus girls), which which will have contemporary viewers squinting 1)Sans Trumptards of course—but then I’m referring to human audiences., it’s a startling sequence, with Dietrich glamming it up in a gorilla suit and blonde afro wig (hence the title Blonde Venus). There’s also the hackneyed Freudian symbology of the duality in the Venus figure (sinner/saint, mother/whore). As with all of von Sternberg, it’s worth watching for his blatant photographic obsession with Dietrich, and for what he can milk out of the sin/virtue script.

Despite its flaws, Blonde Venus was a box office hit that paved the way for their penultimate collaboration, The Scarlet Empress (1934), which proved to be both their masterpiece, and an epic box office flop. Yes, 1934 American audiences reacted to something original and unexpected the same way audiences do today: they stayed the hell away, unaccustomed to any spice in their diet.

To say that Josef von Sternberg  was one of the great visionaries of 1930s cinemas should be blatantly obvious to first year film school students everywhere. With the poor box office Continue reading PRE-CODE HEAVEN: BLONDE VENUS (1932) AND THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934)

References   [ + ]

1. Sans Trumptards of course—but then I’m referring to human audiences.

333. TUVALU (1999)

“I felt very relieved when I was sixteen to discover cinema. To discover there was a land, a place, I call it an island, from where you could see life, and death. From another perspective, another angle, from many different angles. I think every young person should be interested in that island. It’s a beautiful place.”–Leos Carax

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Chulpan Khamatova, Terrence Gillespie, Philippe Clay, Catalina Murgea

PLOT: Anton is a lowly, mistreated assistant at a bathhouse run by his blind father; he falls in love with Eva, the daughter of a sea captain. His real estate developer brother wants to tear down the bathhouse, and also seeks the hand of Eva. After a piece of rubble falls from the ceiling and kills Eva’s father while he’s swimming in the pool, an inspector gives the family a few weeks to bring it up to code or face demolition.

Still from Tuvalu (1999)

BACKGROUND:

  • Tuvalu was Veit Helmer’s debut feature after making six shorts.
  • The movie  was a true international production: director Helmer is German, male lead Denis Lavant is French, female lead Chulpan Khamatova is Russian, and (based on his accent) primary antagonist Terrence Gillespie (in his only known performance) is American. The movie was filmed in Bulgaria.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: While there are some great candidates, from the cavernous Turkish bath itself to Eva’s nude swim with her pet goldfish, we’ll go with the two dream sequences. While the rest of the movie is shot monochromatically, the characters dream in tropical color: specifically, in a negative-image palette saturated in pinks and pale pastel blues, with gold trim.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Blind lifeguard; skinny-dip with goldfish; hat crosswalk

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Stylized to the T’s and set in a bleak world where crumbling Romanesque baths sit in fields of rubble, Tuvalu shows all the right cinematic influences along with the instinctual oddness necessary to be canonized in the halls of weirdness.


Brief clip from Tuvalu

COMMENTS: Tuvalu borrows its style from the weird world of silent Continue reading 333. TUVALU (1999)

321. A PAGE OF MADNESS (1926)

Kurutta ippêji

“Things are not what they seem; nor are they otherwise.”–Shurangama Sutra

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Teinosuke Kinugasa

FEATURING: Masuo Inoue, Yoshie Nakagawa

PLOT: A man takes a job as a janitor in a mental asylum in 1920s Japan to be closer to his institutionalized wife. He is occasionally visited by his daughter, whose marriage he opposes. One night he attempts to escape the hospital with his wife, but she does not appear to recognize him and is reluctant to leave her cell.

Still from A Page of Madness (1926)

BACKGROUND:

  • A Page of Madness was co-written by future Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata, who later published it as a short story. Kawabata was a major figure in Shinkankakuha, a Japanese literary movement influenced by the European avant-garde. (It should be noted that at least one scholar questions Kawabata’s actual contribution to the script, suggesting he should only be credited for “original story”).
  • Some experts suggest the title met better be translated from the Japanese as “A Page Out of Order,” a pun on the fragmented narrative.
  • Director Teinosuke Kinugasa began his theatrical career as an onnagata, an actor who specialized in playing female roles at a time when women were not allowed to be public performers.
  • Kinugasa financed the film himself. Star Masuo Inoue donated his acting services for free.
  • Like most Japanese silent films, A Page of Madness would have originally been screened with a live benshi (narrator), who would explain plot points that weren’t obvious to the spectators, and might even offer his own interpretations of the director’s vision. No recordings or other records of a benshi’s thoughts on Page of Madness exist.
  •  Kinugasa was credited with 34 films before this, all of which are lost. His long and storied career was highlighted by 1953 samurai drama Gate of Hell (which won the Palme D’Or and an Oscar).
  • The only copy of A Page of Madness was thought to have been lost in a fire in 1950; a surviving negative was discovered in 1971. A 2007 restoration added an additional 19 minutes of rediscovered footage.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The smiling Noh masks the janitor places over the faces of the inmates of the asylum, a sight both strange and touching.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Crazy cell dancer; madwoman cam;  asylum masquerade

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Do you think today’s Japanese films are “weird”? Are you grateful for that fact? Then take a trip back in this time capsule to the great-granddaddy of Japanese weirdness with this survey of vintage insanity, the Rising Sun’s first attempt to translate the European avant-garde into its own idiom. Japan takes to Surrealism like a squid takes to playing a piano.


Blu-ray trailer for A Page of Madness (and Portrait of a Young Man)

COMMENTS: There’s little question that A Page of Madness is more Continue reading 321. A PAGE OF MADNESS (1926)

LIST CANDIDATE: ENDLESS POETRY (2016)

Poesía Sin Fin

DIRECTED BY:

CAST: , , , , Alejandro Jodorowsky

PLOT: The second chapter in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s proposed cycle of five autobiographical films, “Endless Poetry” concerns his younger self’s fall for poetry, his resistance to his authoritarian father’s pressures to become a doctor, and his liberation from his oppressive family by joining Santiago’s bohemian artist circle.

Still from Endless Poetry (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: While representing some of the most accessible and straightforward storytelling that the author has ever conjured, Endless Poetry is still very distinctively a vision from Jodorowsky, a result of his passionate and eccentric sensibility full of personal symbolism and mystical allusions, bizarre occurrences, and self-aware theatricality. The List’s increasingly limited slots, and the fact that Jodorowsky is already well-represented here, is all that keeps this one at the margin.

COMMENTS: With The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry, legendary cult cinema hero and weirdophile favorite Alejandro Jodorowsky has entered, at 87 years old, an unexpected phase in his career where he embraces filmmaking as a therapeutic, expurgatory reliving of his past. In this second installment of his autobiographical project (intended as a five film series), we witness Jodorowsky’s adolescence in Santiago and his escape from the oppression of his father and the Darwinist worldview that he tries to enforce on his son, which clashes with the boy’s sensitivity and newfound interest in poetry sparkled by the writings of .

Very much in the same vein as its predecessor, this one takes the form of a psycho-autobiography where the artist renders his life as a mystical, oneiric and carnivalesque myth. Obviously, such a project could only be the product of Jodorowsky’s characteristic pretentiousness. If Dance, however, was relatively melancholic in tone, Poetry is more celebratory and narcissistic, portraying Jodorowsky’s awakening in an appropriately glorifying, joyous display. When Alejandro eventually runs away from home to join an artist’s collective, his immersion in poetry and a bohemian lifestyle is shown as an enlightenment and revelation of his true self and fate. His reception in the community of outcasts is the triumphant reception of a new member in a family, one in which he finally feels he belongs. Like his new siblings, Alejandro’s passion for art is absolute, and he insatiably wishes to “live” poetry. From this moment on, the film chronicles his experiences in the city’s artistic circle, discovering like-minded friends such as Nicanor Parra and Enrique Lihn, and even a lover (played by the same actress who portrays his mother, in a Freudian stroke that remains integral to Jodo’s style).

The idealistic dilettantism that overwhelms and possesses Alejandro is never questioned; the daring and revolutionary mindset of his community is synonymous with liveliness, freedom, realization and self-hood, whereas the world of everyone else is depersonalized, Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ENDLESS POETRY (2016)