Tag Archives: Howard Vernon

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ALPHAVILLE (1965)

DIRECTED BY: Jean-Luc Godard

FEATURING: Eddie Constantine, , Akim Tamiroff,

PLOT: Detective Lemmy Caution sneaks into a soulless, computer-controlled metropolis in search of a fellow agent, and eventually sets about destroying the entire enterprise.

Still from Alphaville (1965)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Alphaville is Godard’s angry screed against the inhumanity of the modern world. Appropriately, he adopts a low-tech approach to depict a future world governed by mathematics and free of human passion, and lets the awkward collision of noir and science fiction create a naturally unsettling, thought-provoking landscape.

COMMENTS: There’s a story of how Alphaville came to be that is not strictly necessary to understanding the film, but which does offer an intriguing insight into the mind of its fiercely independent director. FBI agent Lemmy Caution was the creation of a British novelist, and was portrayed in seven French-language films by expatriate actor Eddie Constantine. Audiences came to know Caution as an archetype of the grizzled tough guy who is as apt to use his fists as his wits to solve problems. Godard evidently decided that this character would be the perfect antidote to a universe where a computer has extinguished human emotion, so he created a plot that brought the detective into the future. But knowing the havoc his plan would wreak, Godard enlisted his assistant director to draft a false treatment based on one of the original books, which was presented to the moneymen who eventually bankrolled the picture. Cash in hand, Godard set about making a movie of his own design with the cheeky subtitle une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution), essentially obliterating the character and derailing Constantine’s career.

It’s a clever bit of legerdemain as well as a fascinating example of cultural appropriation. But I tell this story because it offers a useful insight into some of Godard’s  unusual choices in Alphaville. Soulless, dystopian futures were hardly without precedent, but as far as Godard is concerned, Paris in 1965 already is just such a dystopia. He carefully avoids the most familiar sights of the City of Lights, using newer buildings and designs to reflect the changing soul of the city. But even without futuristic flourishes or scenic adornment, Alphaville the city is unmistakably Paris, with modern architecture and new devices—Caution’s Instamatic camera and Ford Galaxie were startling new innovations for the time—standing in for the future-as-now. For this reason, Godard isn’t just stealing Lemmy Caution to be his bad boy. He needs the constant of Lemmy Caution to hold on to, because he’s out to show that the modern world has become completely detached from humanity; the detective is essential as a familiar icon of a blood-and-guts world to stand up to the soul-sucking new. And even if you aren’t familiar with the character specifically, Constantine’s recognizable hard-as-nails portrayal marks him as the thing that doesn’t belong in Alphaville. Like Mike Hammer showing up in Brave New World, Lemmy Caution is here to stand out, representing humanity in all its passion and even ugliness. He is discordant just by being.

Part of what makes everything so uncomfortable is how normal it all looks, with just one thing put off-kilter to turn the prism. Caution checks into a nice hotel room and is escorted by a helpful but disengaged employee who immediately takes off her dress in anticipation of being used for sex. Every room has a helpful dictionary, which is regularly replaced with a new volume to reflect the words that have been stricken from the vocabulary at the computer’s direction. Familiar cities still exist in the outside, but their names are slightly off. Leading citizens watch passively as rebels—in full-throated protest against the computerized dictatorship—are executed in a swimming pool, after which bathing beauties haul away the bodies. Perhaps the most distressing disconnect is heroine Natasha, a dark-eyed beauty whose status as the daughter of Alphaville’s creator is curiously irrelevant. When she makes a bold proclamation at the film’s conclusion—“Je t’aime”—it signals a connection with her humanity, but the words are chillingly unpracticed, as she tries them on like a pair of shoes that have yet to be broken in.

The most science fictional element is α60, the computer that runs Alphaville and saps the population of its humanity. Godard could never have envisioned the computer as the placid and murderous HAL 9000 or the charmingly imperious Ultron. Instead, α60 is malevolent, a mob boss with a voice that mangles speech as easily as its master plan mangles souls. The computer speaks bluntly of mankind’s doom, and only Caution seems capable of (or interested in) saying no.

Godard isn’t subtle. The scientist who runs the central computer is named von Braun, a blatant call-out to the German scientist who masterminded America’s moon rocket program. As if that weren’t sufficiently on-the-nose, we learn that von Braun previously went by the name Nosferatu. And when Caution destroys α60 with a few carefully chosen words from Jorge Luis Borges, the effect is so catastrophic that human beings are suddenly unable to walk. Faced with going big or going home, he lays it all on the table.

Because Godard has no time for subtlety. He sees the cataclysm happening in real time. He is demanding that the world rise up against those who would place formulas above poems. Humanity is dying, he says, and Alphaville is his howl at the dying of the light.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It begins as a fast-moving prank that combines the amusing agitations of a character on the order of James Bond and the highly pictorial fascinations of a slick science-fiction mystery, and it makes for some brisk satiric mischief when it is zipping along in this vein. Then, half way through, it swings abruptly into a solemn allegorical account of this suddenly sobered fellow with a weird computer-controlled society, and the whole thing becomes a tedious tussle with intellectual banalities.” – Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

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

LIST CANDIDATE: A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD (1973)

La nuit des étoiles filantes; Christina, Princess of Eroticism [alternate director’s cut]

DIRECTED BY: , (additional footage)

FEATURING: Christina von Blanc,  , Britt Nichols, Anne Libert, Jess Franco, Paul Muller

PLOT: A beautiful young girl who has been raised in boarding school in England returns to her fathers’ chateau in France after his death and is introduced to her bizarre (and horny) relatives.

Still from A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The recently deceased (2013) Jesus Franco was a curious artiste: he had an idiosyncratic talent, but he was focused on churning out sex and horror movies so quickly (201 credited features spread over 56 years) that almost all his work inevitably has a half-baked feel about it. His occult obsessions, the value he affords imagery over reason, and the ramshackle nature of his methods tended to produce movies that are at least a little bit weird. Most of these products, however, are also shoddy, boring exercises in exploitation with only a few moments of inspiration. Virgin is, perhaps, his most sustained and atmospheric work, and if a Franco film deserves a place somewhere on the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies ever made, I have yet to come across a better candidate than this one.

COMMENTS: Christina, the titular virgin among the living dead, immediately tells us she “feels like she’s in a strange dream” as a mute chauffeur drives her to her deceased father’s chateau to meet her strange relatives. This is a not-too-subtle hint of what’s to come. Although many of Franco’s movies were incoherent and filled with hallucinatory scenes, Virgin is perhaps his most dreamlike film. It’s filled with strange moments, like a funeral where the family chants a mangled Latin hymn while a cousin paints her toenails and Uncle Howard accompanies them on organ, cigarette dangling from his mouth—the entire bunch is bored, as if this is something they do every Saturday night to pass the time. The other thing they do to pass time is have lots of sadomasochistic sex, including one couple who plays a lesbian-necrophile-vampire sex game with scissors. The female cast is sexy and attractive, but star Christina von Blanc is an absolutely gorgeous creature with big blue-grey eyes and porcelain skin. She’s not a completely vapid actress, either, and it’s a shame that she only has a small handful of appearances in softcore and exploitation films to her name.

There is a running thread about Christina’s relationship to her deceased father, whose ghost she encounters; and there are many vague warnings from others for her to leave this chateau, without anyone directly cluing her in on the fact that everyone inside is dead (that’s not really a spoiler, since it’s pretty much right there in the title). However, while there is a plot, Virgin is mostly a succession of mood pieces and odd scenes (e.g. Christina discovering bats in her bed, Christina wandering in on family members having perverted sex, Christina finding an ebony dildo sitting on her floor) that could almost be played in any order. Distributors took advantage of the episodic nature of the film to splice in extra footage as needed to create variant versions. A (rather lame) outdoor orgy scenes was shot to make an even hotter version for the sex-film crowd. More notably, in the early 1980s vampire specialist Jean Rollin was hired to film a ten-minute hallucination with the dead rising from their graves, shot with an obvious stand-in wearing Christina’s white nightgown, to market the movie as a zombie film in order to capitalize on the fad for Dawn of the Dead ripoffs. (The result was retitled Zombie 4: A Virgin Among the Living Dead). Shot in a similar but distinct occult style, with no dialogue and a much thicker soundtrack, Rollin’s addition literally plays like a dream-within-a-dream, and though purists may hate it, it actually adds to the patchwork surrealism quality of Franco’s movie. Still, the most unforgettable image comes from Franco himself: the hanged man, who appears to Christina several times, including a mystical moment where he glides backwards along a forest path as she advances towards him, mouth agape and eyes wide with wonder.

Redemption Video’s 2013 release may be titled “A Virgin Among the Living Dead,” but actually the primary version of the film they provide is the Christina, Princess of Eroticism cut. That is the edit that plays by default, and the one that includes a surprisingly serious and in-depth commentary track from Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas. To view the better-known Virgin Among the Living Dead cut (which is substantially identical but includes the Rollin-shot sequences) you must select it from the extras. Also included as extras are the five minutes of “extra erotic footage” appended to early versions of the movie and three featurettes, one of which is an interview with Franco. Most of us old-timers never dreamed a day would come when we’d see a Criterion Collection quality edition of a Jess Franco movie, but here it is.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of Franco’s best, a terrific tone poem that’s reminiscent of a David Lynch crossed with a Hammer film.”–Bill Gibron, DVD Talk (DVD)

35. DELICATESSEN (1991)

“I have a lovely memory of my producer, Claudie Ossard, who came to see us in these sewers.  She’d come in Chanel suits and high heels.  It was surreal to see her among these Troglodists dripping in oil.”–Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet

FEATURING: Dominique Pinon, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Marie-Laure Dougnac, Karin Viard, Howard Vernon

PLOT:  In the near future, parts of French society have collapsed, most Parisian buildings are burned out husks, and citizens have turned to a barter economy.  Among the many shortages experienced by city folk is a lack of fresh meat, but one butcher always seems to have enough flesh to trade for corn, or sex.  Answering an ad for a handyman, an ex-clown arrives at the bizarre boarding house run by the butcher and begins a chaste romance with his daughter—but is he there to do odd jobs, or does the butcher have something else in mind?

Still from Delicatessen (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • The first of two films co-directed by Jeunet and Caro.  The pair conceived the idea for The City of Lost Children (also on the List of the 366 best weird movies of all time) first, but it was too expensive to produce.  Delicatessen could be shot on a single sound stage, cheaply, so they produced this film first.
  • In the opening titles, Caro is credited with “direction artistique,” while Jeunet is responsible for “mise en scène.”
  • Jeunet, one of three co-writers on the film, says that the idea for the story came to him because he used to rent a room above a butcher’s shop and would be awoken by the sound of the butcher sharpening his cleaver every morning.  His fiancee would joke that the landlord was killing his tenants for meat in order to convince him to move to a new apartment.
  • Caro not only refused to participate a director’s commentary, saying that he didn’t believe in them, but also requested that footage of him not be used in the behind-the-scenes segments on the DVD.  In his commentary, Jeunet implies that Caro is too self-critical, dryly suggesting Caro thought the film a failure because a barely visible garden hose was unintentionally left in one shot.
  • Delicatessen was picked as the Best Film at the Tokyo International Film Festival.  At home in France it won four César’s, including Best First Feature, Best Screenplay, Best Production Design, and Best Editing.
  • The original trailer for the American release simply contained the entire “bed-spring symphony” scene, with the movie’s title appearing at the end.
  • At the time of release some reputable American critics reported that the film was either co-produced or “presented by”  Terry Gilliam, although Gilliam’s name doesn’t appear anywhere in the credits.  It seems likely the Monty Python alum, whose early films are tonally similar to Jeunet and Caro, played some part the American distribution.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Howard Vernon’s aquatic second floor apartment, covered in a few centimeters of algae-green water and inhabited by frogs and snails who climb over all the furniture, the record player, and even over the dozing actor.  In the corner is a giant pile of discarded escargot shells.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Wandering through Delicatessen is like taking a tour of a dilapidated French boarding house filled with insane tenants, most pleasantly eccentric, some downright creepy. You peer inside each room and find something unique and discomfiting. The film is filled with bizarre characters and absurd comic interludes, set in a decaying near-future universe that is artificially “off.”

Spanish trailer for Delicatessen

COMMENTS:  Except for Marie-Laure Dougnac’s eyes, there is no blue in Delicatessen, Continue reading 35. DELICATESSEN (1991)