Tag Archives: Memory

256. AMARCORD (1973)

“The natural was not an opportunity for Fellini, material to be recorded or rearranged, but rather a constraint, like rationality, defined order, and logic were—a limit on his creativity—and that is why the natural, the narrativized, and the realistic began to disappear from Fellini’s work, at first imperceptibly, before 1960, and then markedly afterward.”–Sam Rohdie, “Amarcord: Federico of the Spirits”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Bruno Zanin, Magali Noël, Armando Brancia, Pupella Maggio, Luigi Rossi, Josiane Tanzilli, Maria Antonietta Beluzzi

PLOT: Amarcord documents a year in the lives of residents of an Italian coastal town (based on Fellini’s own hometown, Rimini) in the 1930s under Mussolini’s Fascist party. Titta, an adolescent boy, is the character with the most screen time, and he spends it mostly with his friends engaging in mischief and lusting after unobtainable older women. The most unobtainable of these is Gradisca, the dreamy, red-maned village beauty and the second most important character, whose eventual marriage marks the end of a chapter in the town’s history.

Still from Amarcord (1973)

BACKGROUND:

  • Won the 1975 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film; the film was also nominated (in 1976) for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director.
  • Depending on what source you believe, “amarcord” is either a Fellini neologism, or an unusual slang word from the Romagnolo dialect of Italian meaning “I remember.” Per Damian Pettigrew, it possibly derives from “amare” (“love”) + “ricordo” (“memory”) (=”fond memory”), perhaps with a touch of “amaro” (=”bitter”, for “bittersweet memory”). Or, it might be just a slurred pronunciation of the Italian phrase “io mi ricordo” (“I remember”).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Most mainstream movie fans remember the peacock in the blizzard, or the massive S.S. Rex passing by in the night (over, as it turns out, a sea made of cellophane). The weird-minded are more thrilled by the sight of the imaginary wedding ministered by the giant Facscist talking head made from red and white blossoms, with the girls holding up hula hoops on one side of the aisle while the boys raise their rifles on the other.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Flowery Mussolini wedding; bean vendor in a harem; dwarf nun

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Amarcord finds Federico Fellini fondly remembering, or deliberately misremembering, his own youth in a series of sketches that alternate between burlesque comedy, light absurdism, and total fantasy. Mainstream movie lovers sometimes see Amarcord as too flamboyant, while Fellini’s more surrealist-oriented fans often miss the delirium of Satyricon, seeing this one as too nostalgic and accessible. Amarcord admittedly isn’t Fellini’s weirdest, but as one of the most beloved works by one of the weird genre’s key directors, it’s worth your time. It skates onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies on the sliding-scale rule: the better the movie, the less weird it has to be to be honored.


Original U.S. release trailer for Amarcord

COMMENTS: It sounds like an outtake from “Arabian Nights” by Continue reading 256. AMARCORD (1973)

LIST CANDIDATE: WORLD OF TOMORROW (2015)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Julia Pott, Winona Mae

PLOT: The third generation clone of a little girl time travels to the present to deliver advice to the four-year old.

Still from World of Tomorrow (2015)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: We’ll cite Don Hertzfeld’s own words, speaking of his inspirations for “World of Tomorrow,” in the film’s favor: “..I’ve always been a big fan of pulpy science fiction, the optimistic yet somehow terrifying science fiction of the 40’s and 50’s, where logic took a back seat to some really giant, weird ideas.” This film was conceived in a weird mindset, but working against this psychedelic stick-figure snippet is—as is often the case with shorts—its length. It’s a stunning work on both the visual and emotional planes, but as good as “World of Tomorrow” is, is it weird and important enough to justify bumping a full-length film off the List to make place for it? If only Hertzfeld would make a proper, weird feature-length film, and end this dilemma for us…

COMMENTS: “Our viewscreens allow us to witness any event in history,” says the visitor from the future with some degree of pride, although she casually concedes that “our more recent history is often just comprised of images of other people watching viewscreens.” Such is the World of Tomorrow as imagined by stick-figure animator Don Hertzfeld. The film is scripted around the recorded utterances of Hertzfeld’s four year old niece Winona Mae, which were later adapted into a screenplay. The girl’s ebullient proclamations of wonder are met with calm acknowledgment by her own clone, who has traveled through time on the eve of the apocalypse to implant this very memory (and to extract another one). Young Emily (referred to as “Emily Prime”) can’t understand the significance of the momentous exchange, focusing on the surface of the vision, delighting her ability to change background colors with a word. For her part, the pontificating clone, who speaks in the emotionless tone of a British Siri, seems oblivious that her words of wisdom are going over the girl’s head. This leads to constant humorous exchanges between the two (“I have no idea what you’re talking about” deadpans the clone in response to some childish gibberish).

Hertzfeld’s characters deliver their mismatched, wistful dialogue against a backdrop of constantly shifting colors. The animator retains the derp-y stick figures that have become his trademark, but digs into digital animation to create futuristic ooh-la-la wonders. Clean, precise geometric figures constantly drift through the frame like technological clouds, with neon static discharges bursting across the screen. Space is a deep purple expanse, and the Earth, seen from the moon, is covered with a grid of girders. Human memories (the kind people of the future will watch for solace) are fuzzy and shown at skewed angles, with unbalanced color that makes a field of grass glow yellow. The eye candy alone more than justifies this trip into the future.

The tone is resigned and melancholy, but not despairing. “Tomorrow”‘s morose vision of the future encompasses depressed robot poetry and shooting star corpses among its many ironic wonders. But while the film embodies the postmodern pessimism that concludes that technology is making us gradually less connected and less human, “Tomorrow”‘s direct emotional impact comes from tapping into that well of nostalgia for the innocence of childhood. Forget the future; every adult feels like a deteriorating third-generation copy of themselves who feels “a deep longing for something you cannot quite remember.” Life is “a beautiful visit, and then we share the same fate as the rest of the human race: dying horribly.” Tomorrow is a mixed blessing, at best, but Emily Prime represents hope and solace.

“World of Tomorrow” is now available streaming on Netflix, or it can be rented directly on-demand.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… within the absurdity lurks a sense of longing for a connection, a soulsick-ness.“–Collin Souter, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: HORSE MONEY (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Pedro Costa

FEATURING: Ventura, Vitalina Varela

PLOT: A retired bricklayer from Cape Verde with a military background wanders through rooms and corridors in some kind of institution, taking visits from people from his past and mixing up flashbacks with present day reality.

Still from Horse Money (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The artistic value is high, but the story is so vague, insular and shadowy that, unless you’re an expatriate Cape Verdean intellectual or a careful follower of director Pedro Costa’s career, there’s not much to latch on to.

COMMENTS: After a slideshow of vintage stills of impoverished New Yorkers, Horse Money opens with Ventura (a non-actor playing a version of himself, who previously played what may be the same character in director Pedro Costa’s 2006 semi-documentary Colossal Youth) wandering, in red underwear, through dungeonlike stone corridors, which eventually turn into the blank industrial hallways of a nameless institution. The stone passages may be the crumbling pathways of his mind; Ventura may be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, or he may be dead and lost in a kind of purgatory. A doctor, or some other official, asks him his name and age; his answers are not always correct, or even responsive. He answers the question “Do you sleep well?” with “A big black bird came up on my roof.” In the hospital (if that’s what it is) he is visited by, or stumbles upon, people he has known throughout his life; some of whom may be dead. A woman from his past speaks only in a whisper and reads off records of births, deaths and marriages from a notary’s register; another visitor is revealed as an ex-friend with whom he got into a knife fight years ago. The climax (if such a word may be used for a film this quiet and subdued) is a long dialogue in an elevator between Ventura and a soldier in metallic green paint who stands statue-still and never moves his lips.

You will be confused. The confusion is purposeful; it enforces an atmosphere of dementia. The cinematography is dark, with shadows dominating nearly every frame, faces carefully lit so that their personalities emerge from a general murk. The anachronistic, boxy 4:3 aspect ratio induces a quiet claustrophobia. The movie’s overall feeling is resignation, and a sense of a character coming to grips with the fact that a hard, laborious life is slipping away. Ventura, whose hand shakes uncontrollably, is perfectly authentic in the role. He’s playing himself, mostly, but he’s also an everyman for his community of poor, working class immigrants, and he takes that responsibility seriously.

Horse Money is beautifully shot and dignifies its subject. It strives to be hypnotic, although too often it drifts from the merely dreamy towards deep, oblivious slumber. If the film makes it to DVD (not a home run proposition) fans of graceful, atmospheric minimalism will want to take a look; but even among weirdophiles, this is not a general interest movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a film of formidable discontinuity that takes the form of a dream.“–Jonathan Romney, Film Comment (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: JE T’AIME, JE T’AIME (1968)

DIRECTED BY: Alain Resnais

FEATURING: Claude Rich, Olga Georges-Picot,

PLOT: When Claude Ridder fails at suicide, he is recruited by a group of scientists who wish to test their time machine; things go wrong and Claude gets stuck reliving scattered sections of his past over and over.

Still from Je T'aime Je T'aime (1968)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: With an unreliable narrative, hundreds of film cuts, and a dead-pan leading man, Resnais’ picture is a strange combination of pathos, editing wizardry, and, more unlikely, a fair amount of humor.

COMMENTS: Perhaps the oddest thing about Je T’aime, Je T’aime is that this movie, subtly, is rather hilarious. While some might shy away from such a strong word, I found the mounting irony and scenarios to be overwhelmingly amusing. I could not imagine a more twisted fate for an aspiring suicide victim than to be obliged to live through extended, repeated chunks of time that lead up to his failure and subsequent hospitalization. Added to the film’s black comedic tenor is the protagonist’s perpetually subdued tone of speech and action; he puts up a front of total emotional apathy for much of the time. This creates an effective contrast with the moments of emotional passion, the most moving of which is his muttering “je t’aime” in the embryonic cocoon of the time machine.

The science-fiction element is as subdued as the protagonist’s interactions with his surroundings. The scientists in this movie are all normal looking men, their mechanisms and labs (aside from the main device) are very low-key and functional looking. The time travel machine in question is an intriguing aesthetic choice: the pod-like nature, with the odd, organic-looking tubing that runs through it, creates a “sci-fi feel” that one cannot help but think influenced David Cronenberg. Once within the organic space, resting on a soft pink-hued chair-like space, the protagonist returns to an embryonic state (a nice touch, reflecting the nature of the time travel Resnais is invoking).

The way time travel operates in this movie is incredibly vague. It seems at first that perhaps we see things as the subject does, somehow detached from his past body. We witness occurrences again and again along with him. We begin to wonder, though, what exactly is going on, because it seems more that he is exploring things he remembers, than actually going back in time to witness them when they occurred. A further obfuscation is created when we see things in his “past” that obviously could never have been there: there is a man in a flooded phone-box, for example. Speaking personally, I have had flashes of hallucinations when going about my daily business, so if he is inside his memory, than these can perhaps make somewhat more sense.

But where is he, and why can’t he get back? And what does the repetition of all these slices add up to? These odd time phenomena warrant repeat viewings. Visiting this man as he lies on the organic surface within the time pod, it seems a more effective escape from life than was his attempted suicide.

When all is said and done, Resnais presents the viewer with an extraction, repetition, and reworking of mundane events in a man’s life that results in a very weird trip through the blasé experiences of this character; experiences that, when combined and re-combined, turn out to be what drives him to his suicide in the first place.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By the time the nonsensical and aggravatingly surreal final stretch rolls around, Je t’aime je t’aime has definitively established itself as an art-house experiment that completely (and distressingly) squanders its promising setup.”–David Nusair, Reel Film

193. MY WINNIPEG (2007)

“What happens, by accident, is that the way you choose to lie, because it’s coming from you, has something of the truth in it. Whatever you’re saying is something that’s intentionally coding the truth. And then somehow that coding gets worn down the more you retell it until finally you might as well just be telling the truth—under oath, and on sodium pentothal. It’s disguised somewhat but it’s as true as, say, Homer is true, the “Odyssey,” and the great literature is true. None of the surface is true, but… So in this case I started with a mostly true surface, and the more mischievous I tried to get about it… I just found myself returning to my way of thinking about the world, or my place in it, which involves laps and subterranean things. So it’s not like I was structuring the story so that things would rhyme or echo with each other, or belong in one piece, it’s just that they came from one place—me—and ended up in one sort of cohesive place—the movie My Winnipeg.”–Guy Maddin

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin

FEATURING: Guy Maddin (narration), , ,

PLOT: “Guy Maddin” narrates a documentary about his hometown, Winnipeg, mixing fact with outrageous tall tales. In the course of the film he hires actors to portray his family and recreate scenes from his childhood. Maddin states his intent is to escape Winnipeg by “filming my way out;” but one of the running themes of the documentary is that no one ever leaves Winnipeg.

Still from My Winnipeg (2007)
BACKGROUND:

  • My Winnipeg was commissioned by Canada’s Documentary Channel.
  • The film is the third part of Maddin’s “Me Trilogy,” three partly autobiographical but fictional films all starring a character named Guy Maddin, which also includes Cowards Bend the Knee (2003) and Brand Upon the Brain! (2006),
  • During festival screenings the film was shown with live narration, usually performed by Maddin but sometimes rendered by guest narrators including and .
  • Ann Savage, who specialized in femme fatale bad girl roles in the 1940s, had not acted in 16 years (her last role was a bit part in an episode of “Saved by the Bell”) when Maddin called upon the then 86-year old actress to portray his mother in My Winnipeg. Savage died one year later.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The eleven horse’s heads, distressed mouths filled with frost, flash-frozen in the Red River after they stampeded while fleeing a stable fire. The view is so romantic and astounding that (according to Maddin) young lovers used to picnic among the icy mares’ heads.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:The Documentary Channel commissioned a documentary about the city of Winnipeg from renegade director Guy Maddin, and instead of a recitation of local facts, they got an icy plunge into the frozen lake of the director’s psyche. The mockumentary form turns out to be a perfect match for Maddin’s prankster temperament. Like the subterranean rivers the First Nations say flow with mystical power underneath Winnipeg’s surface rivers—“the forks beneath the forks”—he exhumes (or invents) fantastic myths about his hometown to try to get at deeper truths about himself.


Original trailer for My Winnipeg

COMMENTS: Relentlessly subjective, Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg is Continue reading 193. MY WINNIPEG (2007)

CAPSULE: THE MISSING PICTURE (2013)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rithy Panh

FEATURING: Jean-Baptiste Phou (English narration), Randal Douc (French narration)

PLOT: Rithy Panh remembers his boyhood growing up in a Cambodian work camp under Pol Pot’s murderous regime, using clay figures of his own design to recreate horrors from the past.

Stillfrom The Missing Picture (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This handcrafted memorial of genocide is a heartbreaking and dreamlike testimonial to perseverance in the face of incomprehensible evil, but despite being both off the beaten path and worthy of your attention, it’s not what we could truly term “weird.”

COMMENTS: Strictly speaking, mass murder is never entirely rational, but there was something especially horrific about the crimes of the Khmer Rogue and the way they blended an absurdly suicidal ideology with naked hypocrisy. Pol Pot’s regime allowed thousands of people to die of malaria because they would not treat the ill with “capitalist” medicine. The people were asked to work in “rice fields” set up in deserts, dying of hunger and exhaustion today so that millions might be fed in some far-off tomorrow. If the children sent to work in one particularly tough camp could not extract three cubic meters of dirt per day, their quota was raised to five cubic meters. It was a utopia of perfect equality, except that the overseers in the red neckerchiefs carried guns and never went hungry.

Since there is no filmed record of the horrors of Cambodia’s killing fields, other than propaganda movies showing smiling workers loading sacks of grain onto trucks (the narrator suggests that they may be props filled with sand), Rithy Panh recreates his experiences in the death camps by carving clay figures and arranging them in dioramas, which he then films with bitterly poetic narration. This is the missing picture—a record of misery that went unrecorded, because the powers that be didn’t want it to be seen. The crude, pocked and weathered figurines with frozen expressions for make perfect victims. They are nameless masses, but no matter how blank their features, each is somehow an individual, whether the individuality comes from a unique pose or some imperfection in their sculpture. They are unable to express the horror of their situation, but this makes them the perfect dumb witnesses to inexpressible horror. They sometimes interact with rare footage of Kampuchea in the 1970s. Carved figures of red-scarved soldiers stand quietly in front of black and white archival war footage; newly enlisted workers stare out from cattle cars as back-projected scenery races by. The soundscape—melancholy Cambodian folk music, dark ambient music with exotic instrumentation—combines with the quiet, almost resigned narration to make the picture play like a muted nightmare.

Technically, The Missing Picture is a documentary, but that designation seems too limiting for such ambitious nonfiction. Picture (re)creates more than it documents. Watch this with the (slightly weirder, and far more acerbic) The Act of Killing for an unconventional and disturbing documentary double-feature about the capacity of man to deal death to his fellow man, from the right or the left, from action or from neglect. “To survive, you must hide a strength within yourself… for a picture can be stolen, a thought cannot.”

The Missing Picture was Cambodia’s first-ever submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. It was passed over.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

” …like a dream, like a nightmare, and it often flows in an eerie stream of consciousness.”–Maryann Johanson, Flick Filospher (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: GHOST IN THE SHELL (1995)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Atsuko Tanaka, , Iemasa Kayumi (original Japanese); Mimi Woods, Richard George, Abe Lasser (English dub)

PLOT: In 2029, a government cyborg tracks down a terrorist hacker nicknamed “the Puppet Master,” who has the ability to “ghost-hack” to possess cyborgs and brainwash humans.

Still from Ghost in the Shell (1995)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The plot is so intricately confusing that it approaches the surreal, and the visionary animation occasionally verges on the hallucinatory; but once you really dive into it, you’ll find that at bottom Ghost is nothing especially weird: just good, hardcore science fiction. Director Oshii has done weirder.

COMMENTS: Ghost in the Shell begins with a political assassination of an accused terrorist hacker after police who have just stormed the building under the direction of a secretive government agency are held off by a diplomat asserting political asylum. The naked female cyborg dangling tumbling past the skyscraper window blasts his head off so good that we catch sight of the victim’s spinal cord sticking out of his headless body. That’s the kind of story we have here: a complex plot punctuated by bursts of graphic sex and violence. (Smooth Barbie-doll cyborg crotches get around Japanese taboos against depicting pubic hair or genitalia, although it’s never quite clear why female agents need to do so much of their jobs in the buff). The mix of fantasy and fanservice are très anime, although to its credit, Ghost is less exploitative and far more thoughtful than most of its kin. In between firefights and car chases, conflicted heroine Major Motoko Kusanagi delves into questions of what it means to be human—or cyborg; whether, for example, resigning from Section 9, which would involve decommissioning her titanium-reinforced skeleton and augmented brain, would change who she was, or return her to who she is.

The plot involves diplomatic intrigues between countries that don’t yet exist, turf wars between underground intelligence agencies we don’t know (“don’t forget, we’re Section 9” says one helpful Section 9 agent to another), and speculative cybernetic technology the viewer is largely required to figure out on his own. By design, the movie never directly explains the central concept of a “ghost” to us—is it a natural human brain, an “augmented” cybernetic brain, or a pure artificial intelligence? Or is it simply whatever inhabits and motivates a body (the “shell”)? Despite this obtuseness, the plot is ultimately comprehensible, with a couple of watch-throughs and a study of either the original manga (which contained thirty pages of footnotes explaining Ghost‘s sociopolitical and technological background) or an online wiki set up for this purpose.

Despite not explaining too much, Ghost keeps our attention. For some, it will simply be the beautifully drawn scenery, trippy Akira-inspired synthetic tribal soundtrack, and ample action breaks that enable them to float by without wholly grasping the plot. Others will be thrilled by the challenge to engage intellectually with the story and to deduce the nuances of a data-obsessed future setting that becomes more and more believable with each passing year. Regardless which camp you fall into, Ghost in the Shell is an invigorating animation for the mind and eye.

Ghost in the Shell has gone through numerous home video iterations, most of which failed to satisfy its picky fanbase. A “2.0” version released in 2008 updated some of the graphics and the soundtrack with the latest digital effects (and predictably alienated purists, which anime fans tend to be). The 2014 “25th Anniversary Edition” (questionable arithmetic there) Blu-ray release comes from Anchor Bay; the video remastering is praised, but there are naturally complaints about the complete lack of on-disc extras (it does contain a nice booklet with several essays). The 1998 Manga Video DVD release contained numerous extra features, but the picture was not as clear. Interested parties may want to shop around for the version that best meets their needs.

Dreamworks Studios has plans for a live-action adaptation of the original manga in the works, with Rupert (Snow White and the Huntsman) Sanders to direct.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…for sheer mind-expanding sci-fi strangeness this is hard to beat.”–Tom Huddleston, Time Out London (2014 re-release)