Tag Archives: Guilt

219. THE PORNOGRAPHERS (1966)

“Erogotoshitachi” yori Jinruigaku nyūmon

“What kind of fish is that? What is it doing there?

“Very strange…”–dialogue spoken over the opening credits of The Pornographers

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Shôhei Imamura

FEATURING: Shôichi Ozawa, Sumiko Sakamoto, Keiko Sagawa, Masaomi Kondô

PLOT: Ogata makes illicit pornographic films to support his widowed landlady, who is also his lover, and her two teenage children. The widow believes her ex-husband was reincarnated as a carp she keeps in a fishbowl next to the bed and that he disapproves of the arrangement, but she cannot control herself. When she dies, she insists Ogata marry her daughter, but the pornographer has become impotent and obsessed with building a mechanical woman to be the perfect mate.

Still from The Pornographers (1966)

BACKGROUND:

  • Shôhei Imamura apprenticed as an assistant director under Yasujirô Ozu, and although he was considered a major figure in the Japanese New Wave, his movies are little known outside his native land. In the West, The Pornographers is his best-known work.
  • The scenario was based on a 1963 novel by Akiyuki Nosaka (who also wrote the story on which Grave of the Fireflies was based).
  • The Pornographers was made by Nikkatsu studios, who ironically turned from producing art films to making pornography (“pink films”) soon after the scandal over ‘s “incomprehensible” Branded to Kill in 1967.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Shôhei Imamura frames many of the shots in The Pornographers oddly, including a couple of bedroom scenes viewed through a fish tank; the idea is that we are watching the jealous carp as he spies on his human wife making love to Ogata. The weirdest of these shots, however, has to be a Haru’s deathbed scene, also shot through the carp cam—improbably, this time, from above, as if the fish is looking down from heaven on the spouse who is soon to join him.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Carp ex-hubby; slow schoolgirl porn star; Ogata floats away

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A cavalcade of perversions flecked with short dream sequences and unannounced flashbacks, almost every scene in The Pornographers is eccentric, if not flatly surreal. The main character delivers a philosophical monologue as he walks though an orgy, the matron freaks out to the surf-rock soundtrack in her head, and a new wife strips to garter and stockings as she walks down the corridor to meet her mother-in-law for the first time. Although the story is based in realism, the film’s tone is melodramatic and dreamily erotic—but, ironically, hardly pornographic at all.


Original trailer for The Pornographers

COMMENTS: The key to understanding The Pornographers may be Continue reading 219. THE PORNOGRAPHERS (1966)

174. VERTIGO (1958)

“If Vertigo remains, unchallengeably, Hitchcock’s masterpiece, this is surely because there the attitude to the unknown and mysterious is not simply one of terror but retains, implicitly, a profound and disturbing ambivalence.”–Robin Wood, “Hitchcock’s Films

“Only one film had been capable of portraying insane memory, impossible memory: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.”—Sans Soleil

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: James Stewart, , Barbara Bel Geddes

PLOT: During a rooftop pursuit of a fleeing suspect, John “Scottie” Ferguson finds himself hanging from a drainpipe; the uniformed cop who tries to save him slips and falls to his death. Suffering from debilitating acrophobia and vertigo, as well as survivor’s guilt, Scottie quits the police force. An old college acquaintance offers him a job tailing his wife, and Scottie becomes obsessed with the beautiful and mysterious woman who believes she is possessed by the spirit of a suicidal ancestor.

Still from Vertigo (1958)
BACKGROUND:

  • The source of Vertigo was the novel “D’Entre Les Morts” (translated in English as “The Living and the Dead”), by the French writing team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Hitchcock had wanted to adapt the pair’s first novel, “Celle qui n’était plus,” but the rights were sold to a French company and it was made as Les Diaboliques by Henri-Georges Clouzot. Boileau-Narcejac would later write the screenplay for Les Yeux Sans Visage [Eyes Without a Face] (1960).
  • Hitchcock bought the rights to Vertigo back from Paramount (along with four other 1950s-era films), then willed them to his daughter. The film went out of circulation for many years. The rights eventually ended up with rival studio Universal, who restored and re-released the film theatrically (in 1983 and again, after a major restoration, in 1996) to great acclaim.
  • The dizzying “vertigo” effect (sometimes known as the “dolly zoom” or “trombone shot”) is the film’s most famous technical innovation: the camera tracks backwards on a dolly while simultaneously zooming the lens, resulting in  a disorienting visual experience of moving backwards and forwards simultaneously.
  • Abstract Expressionist painter John Ferren designed the dream sequence.
  • A controversial flashback scene reveals the “twist ending” about two-thirds of the way through the movie. Before the film’s release Hitchcock decided to remove this sequence, over the strenuous objections of his producer, Herbert Coleman. After preview audiences were unimpressed by the flashback-free cut, the studio ordered Hitchcock to return the film to the way it was originally shot.
  • Vertigo, which was exceedingly dark compared to the average Jimmy Stewart vehicle, was not as successful as Hitchcock’s previous hits such as 1954’s Rear Window, and barely broke even at the box office. The scale of its initial failure is often exaggerated, however, for the sake of a good story: it qualified more as a minor disappointment than a flop. The contemporaneous reviews were also mixed (leaning towards positive with reservations about plausibility and pacing), rather than universally negative, as is sometimes implied.
  • In the 2012 Sight & Sound critics poll, Vertigo replaced Citizen Kane, the top vote getter every year since the poll’s inception in 1962, as the greatest movie of all time. (It ranked #7 on the director’s poll, where Tokyo Story took the top spot).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It has to come from the dream sequence. Although we chose Jimmy Stewart’s head floating against a shifting kaleidoscope background to illustrate this review, the most thematically significant image is the male shadow falling, first onto a terracotta rooftop and then through a white void (this figure is incorporated into the original Saul Bass-designed poster, where it combines with the movie’s other significant motif, the spiral).

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Vertigo may be one of the most subtly strange movies out there. It’s entirely possible to watch it and see it as no more than a conventionally (if implausibly) plotted mystery. But peer into its vortex closer and you’ll see why this brightly lit but oddly dreamlike tragedy has fascinated generations of moviegoers: in its depths hides madness, illusion, necrophilia, sexual domination, a perverse longing for death, guilt, and the grinding gears of merciless fate. There’s a reason Vertigo is a cult movie. It doesn’t give up its secrets easily. Watch it again, with your weird eyes.


Re-release trailer for Vertigo

COMMENTS: Did any movie produced under the Hollywood studio system ever torture its protagonist as mercilessly as Vertigo torments Scottie Continue reading 174. VERTIGO (1958)

CAPSULE: THE TRUTH ABOUT EMANUEL (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Francesca Gregorini

FEATURING: Kaya Scodelario, Jessica Biel

PLOT: A troubled teenage girl becomes obsessed with the single mom who moves in next door.

Still from The Truth About Emanuel (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This metaphorical psychodrama is dreamy, but not quite dreamy enough to qualify as “weird.”

COMMENTS: Although it flirts with head games, The Truth About Emanuel is steadfastly a drama and not a psychological thriller; it does contains a twist, however, that makes it hard to discuss the plot without giving away an intended surprise. Suffice it to say that the twist arrives early, isn’t too terribly difficult to guess, and is milked almost entirely for its surface metaphor rather than as a source of suspense. Emanuel (Scodelario) is a smart but sullen teen girl, a female Holden Caulfield with a morbid streak. She has her name (spelled in the masculine form) tattooed on her arm, and nothing but sarcastic comments for her desperate-to-connect stepmother and a nerdy coworker. Emanuel feels existential survivor’s guilt due to the fact that her mother died giving birth to her. Enter new neighbor Linda (Biel), a young mother in constant need of babysitting services, with whom Emanuel immediately connects (inspiring vicarious maternal jealousy and lesbian panic in her stepmom). The two women’s relationship quickly takes a turn for the symbiotically, and symbolically, unhealthy. Despite the fact that the film’s big bombshell is dropped at the end of the first act, the movie as a whole feels very slow-developing. It can also be heavy-handed, moving its characters around stiffly so that they hit their psychological marks on cue. On the plus side, the acting and general technical quality of the film is good. Kaya Scodelario has a fine presence (the camera loves her big, haunted blue eyes), and although her role as a morose teen doesn’t require her to stretch her talents too much, I expect to see more of her in coming years. Biel is natural as always, putting in another of her effortlessly classy performances that make me wonder if maybe she shouldn’t be a bigger star than she is. The two women share good chemistry in this very gynocentric film. Even aside from the thematic obsession with motherhood and the mother/daughter relationship, Emanuel is very much the aggressor and dominant partner in her budding romance with her Elijah-Wood-as-Frodo-looking boyfriend; this movie, in fact, would fail the reverse Bechdel test. Despite some slightly distracting budget CGI, a lovingly constructed dream sequence works as an emotional and symbolic centerpiece. Along with one glancing shot that introduces some subjective ambiguity into the entire scenario, that dream gives the film just a touch of weirdness, although there’s not much here that will stretch the aesthetic boundaries of anyone who’s seen an independent film or two in their times. The Truth About Emanuel isn’t subtle in its symbolism, but it is an earnest and a generally effective exploration of maternal longing, brainier and more poetic than the average chick flick.

The Truth About Emanuel played Sundance in 2013 under the more intriguing title Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes. The revised, generic title may sound less weird, but it is arguably more misleading than the Truth About Fishes. It’s being released on video-on-demand contemporaneously with its limited theatrical release, which has now become the official distribution strategy for independent films.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…has elements that are weirdly creepy, yet it still manages to be surprising and achingly sad.”–Nina Garin, San Diego Union-Tribune (contemporaneous)

 

CAPSULE: THE ACT OF KILLING (2012)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous

FEATURING: Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, Adi Zulkadry

PLOT: A Western documentarian encourages leaders of Indonesian death squads, now grandfathers and respected elders of paramilitary groups, to make a movie proudly re-enacting the massacres they committed as young gangsters, on condition that he can film them behind-the-scenes as they work.

Still from The Act of Killing (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though gut-wrenching, the movie itself is not really weird—although the outtakes of the film the gangsters produce (particularly the musical numbers) reveal something authentically surreal (in a heartbreakingly ironic mode).

COMMENTS: The Act of Killing may be the most moral prank ever pulled. Retired Indonesian gangsters responsible for killing thousands of alleged Communists and ethnic Chinese, especially those who failed to come up with protection money, believe they will be creating an epic film to celebrate their heroically homicidal contributions to the current dictatorship; instead, they are the unwitting stars of a psychodrama that is one of the most frightening and nuanced testaments to the banality of evil ever made. Asked to recreate their greatest massacres, the men come up with amateur productions that would be hilarious, if the real life backstory wasn’t so monumentally tragic. Pink-clad dancing girls (“eye candy,” explains one director) emerge swaying from the mouth of a giant concrete goldfish. In a sagebrush-inspired scene, a woman is gang raped—but she’s played by the heaviest of the killers, in drag. In front of a waterfall, ghosts of the dead hang medals around their executioners’ necks, while “Born Free” plays. Insulated in a cocoon of propaganda that treats them as national heroes, it never occurs to these retired killers to feel shame, and their lack of comprehension of the way outsiders view them manifests itself in bizarrely unselfconscious narratives. The Act of Killing could be seen as a psychological survey of the various ways killers cope with the dried blood on their hands. Some of the gangsters, such as the buffoonish Herman (who is oddly eager to dress up like  for the camera—there is a strange undercurrent of homoeroticism running through all of the gangsters’ friendships), come off as completely clueless. Others, like the bloodcurdling Adi, embrace their evil, arguing that the winners make the rules. He takes pride in his ability to own his own cruelty, seeing it as a sign of mental strength. Then, there is Anwar. Anwar has nightmares about the innocent people he’s killed, but he complains of them in the matter-of-fact way a fishing buddy might complain he has a touch of arthritis in his knee. As the movie goes on, it focuses its lens more and more on Anwar, on his smile that curiously fades as he watches the daily rushes; he seems to be the only one of the major players with the capacity to feel remorse. Is it possible to feel sympathy for someone who bluntly admits he’s strangled more than 1,000 people? Or, is Anwar’s budding conscience just another act for the camera—has he intuited what his director needs from him? Regardless, Anwar is the greatest and most complex character you’ll see on screen this year—his naïve dialogue would be almost impossible for a writer to convincingly script, his curiously opaque facial reactions almost impossible for an actor to convincingly perform. The Act of Killing far transcends a simple political event, however tragic, and becomes a movie about the intersections of human perception and reality: about our blind spots, about how we create and recreate our identities, about the strategies we adopt to justify the unthinkable. It’s movies inside of movies, arising from guilty subconsciouses. Kill a man and you go to prison. Kill a thousand men, and you celebrate the feat by making a movie where dancing girls in pink chiffon strut out of a giant goldfish’s mouth.

The Act of Killing also contains some of the most chillingly bizarre credits you’ll ever see: about three fourths of the entries read “Anonymous.” Two of the greatest living documentarians, and , were so impressed by an early cut of The Act of Killing that they signed on as executive producers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “…we spend the next two hours in the company of laughing, joking mass-murderers, blithely revisiting their blood-drenched past in a manner that is at once insanely surreal and distressingly domestic… even in his most hallucinogenic moments, Alejandro Jodorowsky himself could not have dreamed up images to match such eeriness.”–Mark Kermode, The Observer (contemporaneous)

143. THE TRIAL (1962)

Le procès

“It has been said that the logic of this story is the logic of a dream—of a nightmare.”–Orson Welles’ prologue to The Trial

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Orson Welles, , , Elsa Martinelli, Akim Tamiroff, William Chappell

PLOT: Josef K. awakes one day to find two investigators in his apartment, who inform him he is under arrest and will have to stand trial. When he asks what the charges are, the police tell him it’s not their place to talk about that. The authorities release Josef on his own recognizance, and he spends the rest of the movie navigating a legal labyrinth, trying to find a way to absolve himself of a charge no one will specify.

Still from The Trial (1962)

BACKGROUND:

  • Franz Kafka wrote “The Trial” in 1914 or 1915; it was never completed and was only published after his death.
  • Feeling that studio interference had ruined Touch of Evil (1958), by the 1960s Orson Welles had sworn off directing for Hollywood studios for good (he continued to accept acting jobs). From 1958-1962 he worked on a never-completed adaptation of “Don Quixote,” then was approached by French backers about making a film in Europe; he would be given complete creative control. He was given a list of public domain titles to adapt and chose “The Trial.” (Unfortunately for the financiers, their research was faulty; it turned out that Kafka’s book was still under copyright at that time, and they were forced to negotiate licensing fees).
  • The movie was filmed in Yugoslavia, Italy and France. Welles shot the courtroom scenes and many of the interiors at the abandoned Gare d’Orsay train station in Paris.
  • Welles dubbed dialogue for eleven of the actors, and reportedly even overdubbed some of Perkins’ lines.
  • In interviews with Peter Bogdanovich for his biography This Is Orson Welles, the director said that he suffered from recurring nightmares of being put on trial without knowing why and stated that this film was “the most autobiographical movie that I’ve ever made, the only one that’s really close to me… It’s much closer to my own feelings about everything than any other picture I’ve ever made.” The director of Citizen Kane also said that The Trial was “the best film I ever made.”
  • The production company never registered a copyright on The Trial in the United States and for many years it was in the public domain, until the copyright was restored under the GATT treaty.
  • The negative of the movie was thought to be lost, but a copy was discovered and restored in 2000.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Welles begins the movie by narrating Kafka’s mysterious parable “Before the Law,” about a man who withers and dies while waiting his entire life to pass through a doorway blocked by a guard. The fable is illustrated by elegantly grotesque slides created through “pinscreen” animation (the images are created by shadows cast by thousands of individual pins) by Alexandre Alexeïeff. Near the end of the movie Welles, now in character as the advocate Hastler, retells the fable, this time projecting the slides directly onto the face of Josef K. (Anthony Perkins) as he stands before a screen. Welles’ hulking shadow, invisible to K as he faces Hastler, lurks over Perkins’ shoulder like the impassable guard of the tale—or like an angel of death.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Written at the dawn of the twentieth century, before the horrors of World War I, Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” is a masterpiece of nightmare literature and a harbinger of the angst that would come to define modernism. Orson Welles, the great grayscale poet, proves the perfect adapter of Kafka, imprisoning the beleaguered Josef K. in bars of light and shadow. Kafka’s story was a picaresque journey through abstract interactions with a sequence of bureaucrats and seductresses that, frustratingly, never brings him any closer to answering the central riddle of his indictment. Rather than elucidating Kafka’s text, Welles’ narrative decisions further muddy it, stringing poor Josef K along with a promise of an answer that never comes. I imagine Kafka applauding in his grave.


Original U.S. trailer for The Trial

COMMENTS: After the dreamlike prologue telling of the man who fruitlessly waits an entire lifetime for admittance to the Law, The Trial proper Continue reading 143. THE TRIAL (1962)

95. SOLARIS [SOLYARIS] (1972)

“”This exploration of the unreliability of reality and the power of the human unconscious, this great examination of the limits of rationalism and the perverse power of even the most ill-fated love, needs to be seen as widely as possible before it’s transformed by Steven Soderbergh and James Cameron into what they ludicrously threaten will be ‘2001 meets Last Tango in Paris.'”–Salman Rushdie on the (since realized) prospect of a Solaris remake

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Jüri Järvet,

PLOT:  In the indefinite future, mankind has set up a space station orbiting Solaris, a mysterious planet covered by an ocean that exhibits signs of consciousness.  Several of the crew members studying the planet demonstrate eccentric behavior and possible signs of mental illness, and psychologist Kris Kelvin is sent to the station to evaluate them and decide whether the program studying Solaris must be scrapped.  On board the satellite Kelvin discovers an incarnation of his wife, who has been dead for seven years, and falls in love with the hallucination.

Still from Solaris (1972)

BACKGROUND:

  • For information on director Tarkovsky, see the background section of the entry for Nostalghia.
  • Solaris was based on a 1961 novel by Polish science fiction author Stanislaw Lem.  Tarkovsky’s version was actually the second adaptation; the story had been filmed previously by Boris Nirenburg for Soviet television.  Steven Soderberg created an American version in 2002 starring George Clooney; it was a modest success with critics, but a commercial flop.
  • Solaris won the Special Jury Prize (the second most prestigious award) at Cannes; the Palme d’or was shared by two realistic, political Italian films (The Working Class Goes to Heaven and The Mattei Affair) that are now almost forgotten.
  • Although commentators frequently claim that Solaris was created as a reaction to s 2001: A Space Odyssey, cinematographer Vadim Yusov says that the director had not seen the 1968 space epic until filming had already begun.  We can safely assume, however, that Soviet authorities were aware of the film, likely viewed it as propaganda for the American space program, and were more than happy to finance a 2001 response with cosmonauts as the cosmic heroes.
  • Tarkovsky liked Natalya Bondarchuk’s initial audition for the role of Hari, but thought she was too young for the role (she was only 17 at the time).  He recommended her to another director for a different part and continued casting.  A year later Bondarchuk had completed her movie, Tarkovsky still had not cast Hari, and she still wanted the role.  The director was impressed enough with her work and persistence to relent, ignore the age difference between  her and leading man Donatas Banionis, and make her his Hari.  Later Tarkovsky would comment in his diary that Bondarchuk’s performance “outshone them all.”
  • The weird seascapes of Solaris’ surface were created in the studio using an acetone solution, aluminum powder, and dye.
  • American reviewers gave Solaris largely negative reviews on its Stateside release in 1976; in their defense, however, the version then screened here was badly dubbed and had a half-hour cut from the running time.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: During thirty seconds of scheduled weightlessness, Kris and Hari slowly rise in the air.  A chandelier tinkles, a slow Bach organ chorale plays, and a lit candelabrum and open books float past them as they embrace.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Though Solaris is far from Tarkovsky’s weirdest movie—in fact, it may be his most accessible—any movie in which a cosmonaut falls in love with an avatar of his dead wife that’s been created from his memories by an intelligent planet starts off on an oddish note. When Tarkovsky points his dreamy camera at this scenario and applies his typically hypnotic and obliquely philosophical style, the weird notes push to the forefront. The currents rippling in psychologist Kris Kelvin’s troubled subconscious turn out to be as mesmerizing as the ultramarine undulations of the surface of Solaris itself.


Criterion Collection trailer for Solaris (1972)

COMMENTS: Thirty minutes into Solaris Burton, a minor character, takes an almost five Continue reading 95. SOLARIS [SOLYARIS] (1972)

87. MAELSTROM (2000)

“Maelstrom, from my humble point of view, was inspired as follows: we all have an amazing built-in system of personal and social defense: we interpret the world and construct for ourselves an image of it, which comforts us and eases our conscience, and we do this instinctively.  For me, Maelstrom is a playful call to be responsible and to be careful.  Some of my friends found this definition childish and tried to convince me that Maelstrom was, instead, a dark and serious drama about a woman emerging from chaos and mythomania.  Others consider it a luminous noir fable of a voyage to the limits of reality and myth.  That’s ridiculous.  Don’t believe a word they say.”–Denis Villeneuve, Director’s Note to Maelstrom

DIRECTED BY: Denis Villeneuve

FEATURING: Marie-Josée Croze, Jean-Nicolas Verreault, Pierre Lebeau (voice)

PLOT: A fish about to be chopped up and made into seafood explains that, with his last breaths, he would like to tell a “pretty story” about a young woman “on a long voyage toward reality.”  We then meet Bibi, undergoing an abortion; later that day, she will lose her position in the family business, then leave the scene of the accident after striking a pedestrian while driving drunk.  In the guilt-ridden weeks that follow, she tracks down the man she struck to find out who he was and what happened to him.

Still from Maelstrom (2000)

BACKGROUND:

  • Maelstrom swept the 2001 Genies (the Canadian equivalent of the Academy Awards), winning the Best Picture, Director, Lead Actress, Screenplay, and Cinematography awards.  Other than film festival appearances, the movie received little distribution outside of Canada. A DVD was released in 2003 with little fanfare, and Maelstrom has been largely forgotten since.
  • Set in Montreal, Maelstrom was filmed in French, but a small portion of the dialogue is in untranslated Norwegian, as is the opening epigraph.
  • Maelstrom was included in film critic Richard Crouse’s book “The 100 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen” (coincidentally, this makes the eighth of the titles Crouse chose that we’ve independently reviewed).
  • In 2010 Denis Villeneuve scored an international arthouse hit with the (not weird) Incendies, a story about twins traveling to the Middle East to uncover a family secret, which was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The grotesque, philosophical fish who croaks out the tale between gasps while waiting for the fishmonger (sharpening his blade on a stone and looking like an executioner) to finish him off.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  The story is narrated by a dying fish.  If you need more than that, there’s the confusing, impressionistic, nonlinear timeline (that replays certain scenes); some incredible plot and thematic coincidences; and the stylishly stoned scenes of Bibi drowning her woes in booze and pills. But I keep coming back to the fact that the story is narrated by a (surprisingly reflective) dying fish. Talk about cod philosophy!


Trailer for Maesltrom

COMMENTS: “You’ll get nightmares from eating stale octopus,” Bibi’s friend warns her Continue reading 87. MAELSTROM (2000)