Tag Archives: Minimalist

CAPSULE: LA CRAVATE (1957)

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DIRECTED BY: , Saul Gilbert, Ruth Michelly

FEATURING: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Raymond Devos

PLOT: A man patronizes a shop that sells human heads, trying to find one which will please his beloved.

Still from La Cravate (1957)

COMMENTS: It took me a while to realize that the baby-faced, clean-shaven, curly-headed protagonist of “La Cravate” was actually director Alejandro Jodorowsky as a young man. The director’s early style, as seen in this mime piece, is almost as unrecognizable as his face; but look hard and you can see the seeds of themes and styles that would haunt his later work, in primitive and innocent forms. There may be none of the shock imagery, no blood or nudity or deformity, no pools of bunny blood or lactating hermaphrodites; but the theatricality, the spirit of the circus, the focus on archetypes rather than characters, the eyes turned always towards the strange, all are here in germinal form.

Created as a 28-year old expatriate studying pantomime in Paris, “La Cravate” is just about exactly the kind of production you’d expect from someone who was palling up with avant-gardists and André Breton while interning with . It’s essentially a silent film, with a soundtrack supplied mostly by calliope and accordion. Like a collection of s and s, the characters communicate humorously and non-verbally. Jodorwosky’s rival’s arrogance is obvious from his dismissive glances and the way he slides in front of the slimmer man to gaze into a shop window, forcing Jodorowsky to keep peeking over and around his broad frame. Alternating smiles and scowls, his inamorata jerks Jodorowsky backwards and forwards like a hooked fish on a line. The characters act in front of painted backdrops representing both the interiors and city streets. From the beginning, Jodorowsky is utterly uninterested in realism as a style, even if the conventional theatricality here isn’t as unique and radical a break from norms as the surreality of his successive works would come to be.

Since the plot involves a literal head shop where noggins can be swapped out at will, the story is macabre, but whimsically so. This short might delight children, which is something that can’t be said for the rest of Jodorowsky’s corpus. Although the director’s future mystical/philosophical preoccupations don’t show up here, the scenario toys lightly with the concept of identity. Once the protagonist’s head is (willingly) detached, has he been split in two? The head seems perfectly happy perched on the shopkeeper’s mantle, where he can play fruit checkers by nodding his approval of the appropriate move, and serenade his owner with a recorder sonata in the evening. 1. When his rival’s head is placed on his old body, it continues to try to seduce the cold woman, then shows buyer’s remorse and longs for reunion with its original face. If anything, the main personality seems to inhere in the costume, symbolized by the long purple cravate (which very nearly ends up doing duty as a noose). Weird stuff, when you think about it, although the whole scenario slides through the mind casually as a charmingly cartoonish fancy.

“La Cravate” was inspired by a Thomas Mann story. Co-star Raymond Devos went on to become a successful French comedian (even making an appearance in Pierrot le Fou). The film was once believed to be lost, but a print was discovered in 2006. You can only find it as an extra on Jodorowsky box sets.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This odd comedy manages to incorporate a bit of the absurd and the surreal on a light level.”–Adrian Halen, HorrorNews.net (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “quirkdee” with a simple “its AJ’s first nuff said.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: SUBURBAN BIRDS (2018)

Jiao qu de niao

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DIRECTED BY: Sheng Qiu

FEATURING: Mason Lee, Zihan Gong

PLOT: A team of engineers investigate the sudden appearance of sinkholes which are forcing them to condemn buildings; the story changes to follow a group of suburban elementary schoolers, with parallels developing between the two tales.

Still from Suburban Birds (2018)

COMMENTS: If Suburban Birds is any indication, the modern Chinese art-house movement will be founded in the spirit of . Cinematography will be privileged over narrative, hazy mysticism will pervade, and timelines will go out of focus as one or more histories coexist at once.

Suburban Birds begins slowly, develops slowly, and ends with two men falling asleep. We start off following Han, part of a four man surveying team investigating unstable buildings in a Chinese city. After a while, Han enters an evacuated school and finds a diary. He reads it, and we then begin following the story of a boy—also named Han—and his school chums. They hunt for birds eggs, engage in pre-adolescent flirtation, play war games with toy guns, and eventually trek off on a long journey to find one of their number who didn’t show up to school that day. This section of the film takes up an inconclusive hour in the middle of the film, and is almost entirely realistic. The temptation is to assume that young Han and old Han are the same character at different times of their lives, but the story steadfastly refuses to commit to that interpretation, and in fact several points undermine it. When we return to old Han—seen awakening from a nap—the movie seems less connected to reality than before, although the dissonances are always subtle. Motifs such as haircuts, a riddle, and a stray dog recur in both stories, and it’s possible to draw parallels between Han’s companions in each hemisphere. It ends with a coda that brings in two new characters, out on a birdwatching trip in the same forest where young Han once roamed.

What it all signifies is anyone’s guess; it’s impossible to tease out a moral from the odd story, which never develops a consistent tone or obvious theme. It does features good, if restrained, acting; the children, especially, are a believable ensemble, without a weak link. The cinematography is superior, with intelligent zooms and pans highlighting important characters and spatial relationships. Memorable visuals include a shot of tufts of grass that change color from lavender to red to green, and a dreamlike interlude where the engineers examine “clues” from inside separate plexiglass enclosures, each lit in a different neon lighting scheme. Suburban Birds may be enjoyed by fans of slow, obliquely mystical cinema in the mold of and the aforementioned Bi Gan, but I found it took far too long in developing its enigmas, which didn’t seem worth the journey.

Suburban Birds got a very limited U.S. release in 2019; a DVD/Blu-ray showed up in 2020, and it can be found for rental on some of the smaller, art-house oriented streaming services.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Qiu shows remarkable facility as he patiently adds layer upon layer to a mystery that wants to stay one. This is not a puzzle film, but its ends are elusive.”–Glenn Kenny, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: KINETTA (2005)

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Beware

DIRECTED BY: Giorgos Lanthimos

FEATURING: Evangelia Randou, Aris Servetalis, Costas Xikominos

PLOT: “At a Greek hotel in the off-season, a chamber maid, a man obsessed with BMWs, and a photo-store clerk attempt to film and photograph various badly reenacted struggles between a man and a woman.

COMMENTS: If I am reviewing a film I enjoy or respect (or better yet, both), I am often apprehensive when I sit down to write about it. This is because, despite having written hundreds of reviews by now, I am always fearful I won’t find my “window” into the movie: that first sentence, or first idea, that opens up the rest of my thoughts as I write. If I am reviewing a film that I did not care for, this is not a problem, as there’s usually at least one withering put-down that acts as my window. With Kinetta, I was spoiled for choices. A high point in the movie came early on when I was relieved to find that I wouldn’t, as I was fearing, have to make use of “Closed Caption” subtitles: it turned out the film already had standard subtitles pre-rigged in the stream. This resolved, I watched and took notes; to my right, my cat, Goose, did the sensible thing and slept soundly through the entire film.

Whoever provided the summary on IMDb (which I lifted straight from the site, for the second time only), is a very well-spoken person. That is exactly what Kinetta is “about”, and no amount of “walk time” padding or shaky-cam “fight” footage can stop my train of thought from slapping quotations around everything in a vain attempt to convey how mind-numbingly pointless this cinematic exercise is. Of the three leads, the least charismatic (the “BMW”-fanboy, who may be a cop [?]) gets by far and away the most dialogue. Cameraman, with beard, has perhaps half a dozen short lines, but comes across as the only reasonable person of the bunch. The scene in which he saves the hotel maid character from a drug overdose makes for the only worthwhile stretch of movie—right in the final minutes. But well before that point, a question came unbidden to my mind, “Why don’t the MST3K or RiffTrax people make better use of their skills by tearing art-house garbage to pieces?”

I dove into this review because it was put out there by Management toward the top of the to-do pile. Though I’ve seen one of the director’s more recent movies (with other 366ers, no less), I was totally unfamiliar with his name. So I say to you, Mr. Lanthimos, as I am sure you are reading a review of your (kind of) feature debut from fifteen years ago: good job on overcoming the naysayers. While the likes of The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Lobster prove you know how to make really good movies, Kinetta stands as proof-in-celluloid that you can make a really horrible one if you put your mind to it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Viewing ‘Kinetta’ with the benefit of hindsight, you can see inklings of visual and staging ideas that Lanthimos would explore more fully later on… But time hasn’t made it more than a cryptic curiosity.”–Ben Kenigsberg, The New York Times (2019 revival)

CAPSULE: LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (2018)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jue Huang, Wei Tang

PLOT: A man searches for a woman from his past, who may be nothing but a dream.

Still from Long Day's Journey into Night (2018)

COMMENTS: Bi Gan creates shots of intricate logic inside narratives of unfathomable illogic. Technically speaking, Long Day’s Journey into Night (which has nothing to do with Eugene O’Neill’s play) is another feat of long-take virtuosity; think of films like Russian Ark or Birdman (which it approaches, but does not exceed). Scored to Chinese blues and shot on slick neon streets, the film serves up its slow, dreamy story with an intoxicating noirish melancholy.

The first half of Long Journey jumps back and forth in time, and possibly between reality and fantasy. Bi deliberately withholds narrative information: for example, the protagonist, Luo Hongwu, begins describing his search for one “Zuo Hongyuan” before telling us who he is or why he wants to find him. Repeated motifs—karaoke singing, a disreputable old friend named Wildcat, pomelo fruit, a green book, a spinning house—float around, hints of plot that tantalize more than they explain. The result is like the fractured storytelling of Mulholland Drive, but more subdued and dramatic, and with the key to untangling the story (if there is one) buried even deeper inside the labyrinthine narrative. It’s an exercise in how close you can toe the line of incoherence and still have a structure that functions in the same way as a plot.

The second half begins when Luo visits a movie theater to pass time. The line between the film’s two chapters clearly marked when he puts his 3-D glasses on, and the film pops out into its extra dimension. What follows is the most explicitly surreal parts of the film; Luo has drifted off, and meets a boy who may be his never-born son and a woman who just may be the one he has been seeking. The camerawork will astound you.

Long Day’s Journey into Night is the ultra-rare art-house film released to theaters in 3-D (although only the second half is in that format). At home, I watched it in regular old 2-D (although it is available on a 3-D Blu-ray for those few with enhanced players). I doubt I missed out on much. It feels like a little bit of a gimmick; the main justifications are to create a clear dividing point between the movie’s hemispheres, and to make you feel like you are going on a journey with the protagonist. In China, Journey was marketed as a big-deal blockbuster romance and released to theaters on New Year’s Day, China’s preeminent holiday. This counts as a master prank in my book.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The only thing more surreal than the experience of going to see Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night is perhaps the movie itself.”–Alex Lei, Film Inquiry (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: REDOUBT (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Matthew Barney

FEATURING: Anette Wachter, Matthew Barney, Eleanor Bauer, Laura Stokes, K.J. Holmes

PLOT: In remote Idaho, Diana and her two assistants hunt, observed by an Engraver.

Still from Redoubt (2019)

COMMENTS: A dialogue-free exploration of the myth of Diana the Huntress set in Idaho’s ridiculously beautiful Sawtooth Mountains, Redoubt is a level beyond art-house; it’s art installation. Diana (played by U.S. National Rifle Team member Anette Wachter) is a mysterious sharpshooter camping in a tent in the wilderness. She’s accompanied by two female assistants, contortionists who sleep together in a hammock tied high in the pines and who express themselves solely through interpretive dance. Meanwhile, an Engraver (Barney himself: the character seems to be both a forest ranger and an artist) ventures into the mountains and etches landscapes. At night, he returns to his trailer, where a woman (presumably his wife) electroplates the day’s metal engravings; she’s also working on an abstract sculpture based on a constellation. We observe every step in the creative process. At one point the Engraver watches a Native American woman perform a hoop dance at an American Legion building in an otherwise deserted town. The “action” is divided into a series of “hunts,” although there is little story development. Eventually, Diana catches the Engraver spying on her, shoots one of his engravings, and finally sets a pack of wolves loose in his trailer. Unlike the mythological Acateon, who was transformed into a stag and killed by his own hunting dogs after catching a glimpse of the goddess bathing nude, the Engraver merits divine wrath simply by the act of creating his art, as if act of trying to capture nature is itself a transgression.

There is some fantastic imagery here, capped by the National Geographic-style mountain cinematography (at one point, it captures an avalanche) and the finale which shows the artist’s lair chewed over by lupine chaos. If you enjoy the kinesthetics of the human body in motion, the limber dancing (by professionals who are often clad in long johns) will have an additional appeal. The austerity of the glacially-paced, low-narrative presentation, accompanied only by minimalistic music and the sounds of footsteps in snow and occasional bird calls, is as cold as an Idaho morning, however, and will limit Redoubt‘s appeal. Nonetheless, this is Matthew Barney’s version of an accessible art-house film.

At this point, you might be wondering, “where have I heard the name Matthew Barney?” Barney is the sculptor/filmmaker responsible for the celebrated/infamous films that comprise the Cremaster cycle (which featured hermetic symbolism, bizarre costuming, and such provocative imagery as a bee flying out of a man’s penis). He followed that performance up with the 330-minute scatological film opera River of Fundament. His films incorporate his sculptures and other multimedia (a book accompanies each), and are typically screened only at museums. Only once1 has Barney allowed his work to appear outside of a museum setting: The Order, a 30-minute re-edit of Cremaster 3, which was printed in limited quantities and commands a premium on the secondary market. Redoubt represents, to my knowledge, the first time he has worked with an actual film distributor (Grasshopper). It’s being released this winter to a few select art-house cinemas as well as the usual museums, which is a welcome development. (You can check out the screening schedule at Grasshopper’s website). The scarcity of Barney’s work contributes greatly to its legendary status, but let’s hope that the increased distribution of Redoubt represents a loosening of the artist’s strictures. Maybe as he ages and mellows he’ll break his vow to never release the Cremasters commercially. Or at least let us poor schlubs see River of Fundament on Blu-ray. Probably not, but hope springs eternal.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an eminently accessible version of the avant-garde.”–Pat Brown, Slant (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: HAGAZUSSA (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Lukas Feigelfeld

FEATURING: Aleksandra Cwen, Claudia Martini, Tanja Petrovsky, Celina Peter, Haymon Maria Buttinger

PLOT: An orphaned goatherd exacts revenge on her village before succumbing to her own dark fate.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The sensation left by this brooding contemplation on mystic solitude and the effects of cruelty renders it a far cry from typical supernatural horror. It is a stunning example of the genre of Eldritch Dread. For the briefest of moments I was on the fence about this movie’s viability as an Apocrypha candidate, but after some thought I can attest it is well within the scope of such an honor—though I’m relieved this came to our attention after the Canon had closed and the possibility of hundreds more films opened up.

COMMENTS: If the prospect of watching long, meditative shots and hearing only some few dozen lines of dialogue over the course of one-hundred minutes discourages you, perhaps you should stop reading right now. Lukas Feigelfeld’s debut Hagazussa begins on a lonely alp, runs its course on a lonely alp, and finishes abruptly on a lonely alp. Like the slow muffling of snowfall, the patient viewer will find the film’s subtle accumulations result in something profoundly rewarding.

From our opening glimpse, we can imagine the entire childhood of young Albrun (Celina Peter), living alone with her mother in a high-mountain cabin tending to a herd of goats. The few locals all fear Albrun’s mother (Claudia Martini), a fear that even Albrun develops when her mother is stricken physically, then mentally, by a grotesque disease. Grown up and now completely alone, the adult Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen) keeps no company other than her own infant daughter, acquired by means unknown. She is surprised when a local peasant defends her against the taunts of some idle lads, and seems on the cusp of reaching out to the rest of humanity, when her naivety is betrayed.

Very rarely do I approve of films relying on “atmosphere” to carry them, but Hagazussa has the advantage of drawing its quiet intensity from a handful of sources. The unearthly quavering drone of MMMD (a cryptic duet whose music has been described as “Chamber Doom”) grabs your ear right from the start. The score is appropriately minimalistic, limited in tone as well as deployment, which heightens the effect of its eerie nature wonderfully. The harsh beauty of the mountain setting complements its sparseness. Scenes are typically covered in snow, or rain, or lake water, with long shots cutting between the extreme closeups of the characters.

Which brings me to Aleksandra Cwen. With such little dialogue and exposition, we rely on her to convey the sense, if not the exact nature, of what is going on, and her face and eyes do a marvelous job. This triangle of haunting sound, haunting backdrop, and such a haunting face carries the viewer through a fragile, minimalist narrative amazingly well.

Be advised, anyone who plans on streaming this through Amazon: there is no subtitle option, only closed captioning. In other words, you can either have no subtitles, or all the subtitles, with every musical, sound, and even non-sound1 cue brought to your attention alongside the dialogue. Despite having watched it with continual captions, Hagazussa still managed to enchant me with its measured disquietude.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If last year’s standout psychedelic genre piece ‘Mandy’ was lysergic cinema par excellence, this equally trippy (if otherwise very different) quasi-horror revenge tale offers a nightmare soaked in psilocybin, its every element queasily organic.”–Dennis Harvey, Variety (festival screening)

353. TEOREMA (1968)

AKA Theorem

“I have just seen something absolutely disgusting! Pasolini’s latest film, Teorema. The man is mad!”–Maria Callas, soon before accepting the lead role in Pasolini’s Medea

DIRECTED BY: Pier Paolo Pasolini

FEATURING: , Laura Betti, Massimo Girotti, Silvana Mangano, Andrés José Cruz Soublette,

PLOT: After an introduction in which a worker is interviewed about the factory his boss just gave him as a gift, we see a bourgeois family receive an invitation saying that a visitor will be coming soon. It turns out to be a handsome but unnamed young American man; every member of the family, and even the maid, fall in love with him, and he sleeps with each of them in turn. Another telegram arrives saying that the stranger has been called away, and after he departs the family falls apart.

Still from Teorema (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • Pier Paolo Pasolini originally planned Teorema as a play, but changed it to a screenplay because he believed there was not enough dialogue for it to work on the stage.
  • Despite Pasolini’s Marxism, the relatively liberal International Catholic Organization for Cinema awarded a jury prize to Teorema (as it had to his more conventional 1964 film The Gospel According to Matthew). Pope Paul VI personally criticized the award, and it was withdrawn by the organization.
  • As happened with many of Pasolini’s films, Italian authorities challenged Teorema as obscene. As always, the Italian courts eventually cleared it for public screenings after a trial.
  • Pasolini later adopted Teorema into a novel (which has not, to our knowledge, been translated into English).
  • Composer Giorgio Battistelli adapted the movie into an opera in 1992.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The proletarian saint hovering over her village church. The father, naked on the slopes of Mt. Etna, screaming at the heavens, is a close runner-up. We reject the idea that a closeup of Terence Stamp’s crotch in tight white pants is the most important visual symbol in the film, although we can see how someone might come to that conclusion.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Manspreading Stamp; levitating saint; naked, screaming pop

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Simply stated but open to endless interpretation, Pasolini’s Teorema operates on a strange logic of its own, a kind of triangulated synthesis of Marx, Freud, and Jesus Christ. Any movie in which God appears as a bisexual pretty boy has something weird going for it.


British Blu-ray trailer for Teorema

COMMENTS: It’s a happy coincidence that Teorema—the most Continue reading 353. TEOREMA (1968)