Tag Archives: Minimalist

CAPSULE: SCARS OF YOUTH (2008)

DIRECTED BY: John R. Hand

FEATURING: Jeremy Hosbein, Amanda Edington

PLOT: A survivor of the apocalypse is conflicted about his mother, who is addicted to a

Still from Scars of Youth (2008)

black fluid that keeps her eternally young but causes disorientation and scarring.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Scars of Youth is a beautifully lensed film, filled with dreamlike images and montages. Although not impenetrable, the tale comes across mysterious and weird, thanks to the oblique, overwhelmingly visual storytelling. Unfortunately, all this beauty pads a thin and unengaging storyline.

COMMENTSScars of Youth is easy to critique.  It’s visually and sonically entrancing, on its own terms and even more so when you consider the low budget and lack of any special effects.  On the other hand, the story is slow, yet hard to follow, and what we do discern of the tale doesn’t add up to very much.  The audio in some of the necessary background exposition is deliberately distorted in an attempt to create atmosphere that creates frustration instead.  The performances are substandard throughout; the amateur actors can’t convey complex emotions, and the third main character—a sort of adventurer who smuggles immortality fluid past the checkpoints of an unseen civilization to our hero—sports an unnatural laugh that is particularly off-putting.  Almost every scene is drawn out for far too long, with actors staring off into space with melancholy expressions or wandering around state parks, disconsolately staring at wire fences.  These elements of pure mood can’t take the place of dialogue or action.  There is full-frontal nudity to liven things up, but the mother-son incest subtext, intended to provoke, is laid on far too thickly, with sexual symbolism slathered on with so little subtlety that it becomes embarrassing.  On the plus side, the eerie ambient music is a highlight, and the photography is especially beautiful and far more professional than the narrative aspects of the film.  There are beautiful shots of rippling ponds, closeups of bustling ant colonies, sun-dappled forests, and a consistent, painterly eye for color and composition.  Blue filters are used on the interiors in the protagonist’s lonely room, which turn what would otherwise look like a garage with white sheets hung about for walls into something reasonably mystical.  The black and white dream and flashback scenes are crisp and lovely; one brilliantly conceived sequence is grainy and filled with afterimages, as well as some of the film’s loveliest symbolism.  These short, impressionistic moments are where Scars shines; they could fit comfortably as mood pieces inside a major production with more of a story to tell.  They just can’t carry an entire film.

Hand’s earlier film, Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare, was a collage-like creation inspired by the visual styles of cheap and crazy 1970s drive-in horror movies. The look, sound and pace of Scars of Youth is, instead, a tribute to Tarkovsky‘s Stalker.  Hand captures the general feel of the Russian minimalist master, but whereas the murky grindhouse visuals of Nightmare made the lack of locations, story and acting talent almost appropriate, the ultra-clean, professionally shot look of Scars of Youth highlights these deficiencies.  Both films contain a few gorgeous images which, if they could be judged in isolation, would earn five star ratings; but, in both films we also get the feeling that we’re watching the work of a brilliant cinematographer and sensualist who has yet to find a meaningful story to tell.  If Hand’s storytelling abilities ever catch up to the level of his technical skills, he’ll become the Stanley Kubrick of homemade videos.

A signed “limited edition” of Scars of Youth can be ordered directly from JRH films for $15.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…another successful experimental tweaking of a familiar genre for Hand.”–Mike Everleth, BadLit.com

BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE LIMITS OF CONTROL (2009)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Isaach De Bankolé, Paz de la Huerta, ,

PLOT: An enigmatic hitman is sent on an obscure mission to kill an unknown man for unexplained reasons; the movie follows him as he meets with a long string of contacts of unclear significance, each of whom gives him a matchbook with further instructions and offers him a piece of dime store philosophy.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Set in an unreal moviescape of secret rendezvous and mystifying portents, The Limits of Control has definite shadings of weird. It’s a bold experiment in pure cinema, and like most bold experiments, it’s partly successful and partly frustrating. Stripping the plot down beneath its bare essentials, to the merest skeleton, Jarmusch proves that you can get pretty far on cinematic tone and technique alone. He also proves that you can’t quite get all the way to a good movie solely through cinematics.

Still from The Limits of Control (2009)

COMMENTS:  Dawn’s light breaks across the open eyes of a lone man lying in a hotel room bed. He gets up, puts on a natty suit, and does tai chi exercises, measuring each move slowly and precisely. He goes to a cafe, sits alone, and orders two espressos in two cups; he sends the order back when the waiter brings a double espresso in a single cup. Night falls. He returns to his hotel room, lies down on his hotel room bed, eyes wide open. Time presumably passes. Dawn’s light breaks across his unblinking face. A new day has begun.

It’s a typical twenty-four hours in the life of the character known only as the Lone Man, a secret agent who spends most of his days walking around, looking at the Spanish scenery or visiting the modern art gallery, sitting alone quietly in a cafe sipping espresso, and staring off into space blankly. He’s a quiet man, one who makes Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name look like a chatterbox. He won’t say one word if zero words will get his point across. Occasionally, another spy will meet him at a cafe and they will exchange Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE LIMITS OF CONTROL (2009)

34. STALKER (1979)

“My dear, our world is hopelessly boring.  Therefore, there can be no telepathy, or apparitions, or flying saucers, nothing like that.  The world is ruled by cast-iron laws, and it’s insufferably boring.  Alas, those laws are never violated.  They don’t know how to be violated…. To live in the Middle Ages was interesting.  Every home had its house-spirit, and every church had its God.”–Writer, Stalker

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Aleksandr Kaidanovsky, , Nikolai Grinko, Alisa Freindlich

PLOT:  A mysterious phenomenon known as the Zone arises in a small, unnamed country.  The military sent soldiers in and the troops never returned; they cordon off the Zone with barbed wire and armed guards, but rumors persist within the populace that inside the Zone is a room that will grant the innermost wish of anyone who enters it.  A Stalker, a man capable of evading both the police and the traps formed by the Zone itself, leads a writer and a scientist into the Zone in search of the mystical room.

Still from Stalker (1979)

BACKGROUND:

  • For information on director Tarkovsky, see the background section of the entry for Nostalghia.
  • Stalker is very loosely based on a science fiction novel with a title translating to “Roadside Picnic” written by two brothers, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky.
  • After shooting the outdoor scenes for over a year on an experimental film stock, the entire footage was lost when the film laboratory improperly developed the negatives.  All the scenes had to be re-shot using a different Director of Photography.  Tarkovsky and Georgy Rerberg, the first cinematographer, had feuded on the set, and Rerberg deserted the project after the disaster with the negatives.
  • Tarkovsky, his wife and assistant director Larisa, and another crew member all died of lung cancer.  Vladimir Sharun, who worked in the sound department, believed that the deaths were related to toxic waste the crew breathed in while filming downstream from a chemical plant.  He reported that the river was filled with a floating white foam that also floated through the air and gave several crew members allergic reactions.  A shot of the floating foam, which looks like snow falling in spring or summer, can be seen in the film.
  • The Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened seven years after the film was released.  The quarantined area around the disaster site is sometimes referred to by locals as “The Zone,” and guides who illegally and unwisely take tourists there as “Stalkers.”
  • A popular Russian video game named “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl” involves the player penetrating a “Zone” and evokes a similar visual sense as the movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Like most of Tarkovsky’s works, Stalker is a movie full of awe-inspiring visual poetry and splendor, making it hard to pick a single sequence.  One key scene that stands out is Stalker’s dream.  The film stock changes from color to sepia—but a very warm brown, almost golden—as the camera pans over a crystal clear stream.  A female voice whispers an apocalyptic verse and the mystical electronic flute theme plays as the camera roams over various objects lying under the water: abstract rock formations, tiles, springs, gears, a mirror clearly reflecting upside down trees, a gun, an Orthodox icon, a fishbowl with goldfish swimming in it.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Stalker is an ambiguous, but despairing, existential parable containing narrative non-sequiturs wrapped inside of strange and gorgeous visuals.


Scene from Stalker

COMMENTS: It’s not fair to the potential viewer unfamiliar with Tarkovsky to start a Continue reading 34. STALKER (1979)

24. BEGOTTEN (1991)

“In BEGOTTEN, a time is depicted that predates spoken language; communication is made on a sensory level.”–E. Elias Merhige

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: E. Elias Merhige

FEATURING: Actors from the experimental theater group Theater of Material

PLOT:  A man sitting in a chair disembowels himself with a straight razor.  A woman materializes from underneath his bloody robes, and impregnates herself with fluid taken from the dead body.  She gives birth to a convulsing, full grown man, and mother and son are then seized and tortured by four hooded figures bearing ceremonial implements.

Still from Begotten (1990)
BACKGROUND:

  • Each frame of film was painstakingly manipulated to create the distressed chiaroscuro universe of the movie.  According to the technical production notes, after the raw footage was shot, “…optimum exposure and filtration were determined, the footage was then re-photographed one frame at a time… it took over ten hours to re-photograph less than one minute of selected takes.”
  • It has been reported that the film was inspired by a near death experience the Merhige had after an automobile accident.
  • Critics from Time, Film Comment, The Hollywood Reporter, The Christian Science Monitor, and New York Newsday each named Begotten one of the ten best films of 1991.  Novelist and photographer Susan Sontag called it one of the ten best films of modern times.
  • After Begotten, Merhige went on to direct the music video “Cryptorchid” for Marilyn Manson (which reused footage from Begotten) before landing a major feature, Shadow of the Vampire (2000)–a horror film about the making of Nosferatu, starring Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck and John Malkovich as Murnau.
  • Begotten is intended as part of a trilogy of films.  A second film, Din of Celestial Birds, which deals with the idea of evolution rather than creation, has been released in a 14 minute version that is intended as a prologue to the second installment.
  • After its brief run in specialty arts theaters, including stints at the Museum of Modern Art and Smithsonian, Begotten received a very limited video release, first on VHS and then on DVD.  Merhige explains that this is because he does not believe that these formats are truly capable of reproducing the look he intended for the film:

    There are so many arcane, deeply intentional uses of grain, light and dark in that film that it is closer to Rosicrucian manuscript on the origin of matter than it is to being a “movie”…. When I finished the film I never allowed it to be screened on video because of how delicately layered and important the image is in conveying the deeper mystery of what the film is “about”… this is why it is no longer available on DVD until I find a digital format that is capable of capturing the soul and intent of the film.  My experiments in BluRay have been promising.

     

  • Nevertheless, a (bootleg?) Begotten showed up again on DVD in 2018.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The painfully graphic image of “God disemboweling Himself” with a straight razor–shot in the grainy, high-contrast black and white–is not easily forgotten.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  A minimalist, mythic narrative of grotesque, ritualized suffering enshrouded in astonishing abstract avant-garde visuals and a hypnotic ambient soundtrack.  Love it, hate it, or admire the technique while criticizing the intent—everyone admits there is nothing else quite like it in our cinematic universe.

Original trailer for Begotten

COMMENTSBegotten is a difficult film to rate.  It does not set out to entertain, and it does not Continue reading 24. BEGOTTEN (1991)

CAPSULE: ELEVATOR MOVIE (2004)

NOTE: Elevator Movie has been promoted to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Commenting is closed on this review, which is left here for archival purposes. Please visit Elevator Movie‘s Certified Weird entry to comment on this film.

DIRECTED BY:  Zeb Haradon

FEATURING:  Zeb Haradon, Robin Ballard

PLOT:  A socially maladjusted college student and a reformed slut turned Jesus freak are elevator_movie

trapped in an elevator together–impossibly, for weeks on end.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Quite possibly, Elevator Movie will make the overall list of 366 movies; I reserve the right to revisit it in the future.  By mixing Sartre’s “No Exit” with an ultra-minimalist riff on Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, garnished with large dollops of sexual perversity, writer/director/star Zeb Haradon has created one of the weirder underground movies of recent years.  Unfortunately, in a demanding two character piece that requires top-notch, nuanced dramatic performances to succeed, Haradon’s acting talent isn’t up to the level of his imagination and screenwriting ability.  The resulting film looks like an “A-” film school final project: it tantalizingly promises more than it’s capable of delivering. 

COMMENTS:  Zeb Haradon is definitely a writer to keep an eye on.  The script of Elevator Movie, though not perfect (it misses a few precious opportunities to ratchet the tension and drama up to stratospheric levels), is far and away the movie’s greatest asset.  Haradon takes a very threadbare set of motifs (most notably, infantile Freudian sexuality) and pushes them as far as he can.  This two-character, one setting drama could have been intolerably boring for the first few reels as it builds to its crashingly surreal climax, but Haradon manages to keep us interested by slowly revealing new facets of the characters and keeping up a reasonable tension as Jim and Lana struggle to reconcile their need for intimacy with their complete incompatibility and diametrically opposed agendas.  This could have been a masterpiece, had the actors been able to carry off the monumental task the script sets up for them.  Robin Ballard is passable in the easier role of Lana, but Haradon is almost unforgivably subdued as Jim.  Jim is passive, so some of the wimpiness of the characterization is intentional, but when he needs to project a menacing, seething passion subdued under a calm exterior, he can’t pull it off.  Therefore, at times the inherent dramatic conflict tails off into a bland “OK, OK”, just as Jim’s voice does when Lana once again rejects his advances. 

The images in Elevator Movie, largely scatological and sexual but also involving some brief animal cruelty, are not for the meek.  That said, some of these shocking images, and the surprising but perfect ending, can resonate a horrid fascination for a long time afterwards.  That’s what makes Elevator Movie come so achingly near to being a great weird movie.  Even with qualifications, it’s definitely worth a look for the Eraserhead set.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As a champion of ‘Eraserhead’, ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’, ‘Naked Lunch’, and ‘Back Against the Wall’, all fine films that downright bask in their toxicity to the homogenized masses, I found Haradon’s film to be unique and fascinating and a most worthy addition to the midnight movie circuit. Just don’t ask me to spend any longer in Haradon’s mind than I have to in any one sitting. It’s very likely I’d never make it out!”–Daniel Wible, Film Threat (contemporaneous)