The Department of US Flora Communications tries to coax plants into talking by putting them through constant physical and psychological torture.
Since we last visited our friends at Netflix, things have taken a turn on the streaming weirdness front. The dark future that may await us was succinctly outlined in this Fast Company headline: “Netflix canceling ‘Tuca and Bertie’ is a bad sign for all the distinctive, weird shows streaming is supposed to keep alive”. The lack of love for this quirky animated comedy—a cousin to the more widely acclaimed BoJack Horseman by way of the character design of Tuca creator Lisa Hanawalt—would seem to bode ill for fans of more offbeat programming, especially with the broader success of critically reviled features like Murder Mystery and Bird Box.
On the other hand, one of the service’s biggest brands, “Stranger Things,” is simply not the kind of mainstream fare you would be likely to find on network TV. Someone with the time and patience to scroll through all of the available programming would also find such offerings as the fiercely impenetrable “The OA,” the coal-black premise of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” the deeply uncomfortable comedy of “I Think You Should Leave,” or the shifting tone of animated anthology “Love, Death & Robots.” And the decision to welcome back “Russian Doll” for a second season suggests weird is not quite yet off-limits.
So let’s hold off for a bit on eulogizing Netflix’s middle finger to the mainstream, and let’s instead turn our attention toward two recent debuts which have tripped the weirdometer for critics. They also point to two very different possible outcomes for on-demand bizarre entertainment.
When it comes to mockumentary, there are a number of goals the filmmaker can pursue. The granddaddy of them all, This is Spin̈al Tap, joyously punctures of the legends of rock stars. A more recent example, Netflix’s own American Vandal, sets its sights on the dubious techniques and motives of “real-crime” films and podcasts. Another ongoing series, “Documentary Now!,” is concerned with replicating the look and feel of the subjects it lampoons with startling faithfulness and exactitude. The goal of “Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein” seems to be to let star David Harbour be silly. At the outset, Harbour explains that he is investigating the fateful performance that destroyed his father’s career, an early 70s live (?) TV broadcast of a curious adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic in which the infamous scientist (also played by Harbour in full Wellesian pretentious-actor mode) poses as his own monster in order to secure funding.
It’s all very absurd. But there’s a big problem with “Frankenstein’s…”: all else aside, the program fails in its singular goal to be funny. You can tell the creators think they’re being hilarious, but nothing is believable enough to be satirical, and nothing is wacky enough to be independently uproarious. Harbour is meant to seem thunderstruck Continue reading CHANNEL 366: FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER’S MONSTER, FRANKENSTEIN (2019) / ANIMA (2019)
DIRECTED BY: Aaron McCann, Dominic Pearce
FEATURING: Toshi Okuzaki, Mayu Iwasaki, Masa Yamaguchi, Des Mangan
PLOT: Mockumentary describing a bizarre Japanese cult TV show about a ronin detective who fights samurai and giant robots and eventually travels through time, and the mystery behind its sudden cancellation.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s cute, but minor; an affectionate and entertaining 90 minutes for exploitation movie fans. “Reboot” the fake TV series and we’ll talk about weirdest of all time.
COMMENTS: In our first introduction to “Top Knot Detective,” we see the black-robed title character menaced by a ninja; our hero quickly plays a reed flute, which summons a shark. It bursts through the ground and flies through the sky to completely swallow the bad guy (and squirt liters of blood from its mouth). That may be the craziest moment in the fake series: or it might be when the detective literally catches lightning while playing electric guitar in a thunderstorm. Or the product placement for Suttafu beer. Or the late-series introduction of the detective’s armored, time-traveling, baseball-bat-wielding sidekick. Or the cheaply-designed penis monster (with the actors’ arms poking out of the sides of the pink rubber suit). You can pick your own WTFiest moment, but all of this “archival” material is presented on low-definition, mock-multi-generation-VHS stock, complete with the occasional vertical hold artifact.
Seeing outrageous clips delivered without much regard for the show’s chronology, we don’t get a real sense of how the plot arc of the series works, but that’s by design. The conceit is that “Top Knot”‘s creators pretty much made up the show as they went along—and that anything could happen from episode to episode. About all we learn about the overall plot is that “Deductive Reasoning Ronin” is searching for the man who killed his master, a poorly-motivated villain who sends ninjas, giant robots, and (apparently) penis monsters after the detective. Presumably, the detective solves mysteries in between sword fights, marking his triumphs with a heavily-accented and often inappropriate cry of “deductive reasoning”!
The movie’s real plot is the fictional backstory of the making of the TV show, told through interviews with the alleged cast, all of whom exclusively speak Japanese. The filmmakers introduce Takashi Takamoto, the dissolute narcissist and self-appointed genius behind the series, and Suttafu, the conglomerate trying to make a buck off the show’s sensationalism, along with a bitter rival and a J-pop love interest. In stark contrast to the campy re-enactments, this archival material is produced with a totally straight face, so that anyone who came in in the middle would be forgiven for thinking that “Top Knot” was a real television show. The story of love affairs, Takamoto’s unhinged appearances on a talk show featuring an animated kitty, and tabloid scandals of a sort peculiar to Japan all ends in a murder. Like “Top Knot”‘s interrupted plotline, this crime isn’t fully resolved… although I have my theories. But while you ponder the mystery, stay tuned for another mind-boggling (fake) trailer post-credits.
If there’s one complaint to be lodged against Top Knot Detective, it’s that it plays up the whole damn-Japanese-TV-is-incomprehensibly-weird stereotype, encouraging cultural mockery rather than cultural engagement. But the project is presented with such genuine love and affection for the genre that this seems like a minor criticism indeed.
The grindhouse revival trend sparked ten years ago by Robert Rodriguez and played itself out in the U.S. fairly quickly, but is still going strong in the underground Down Under. They definitely put their own odd, Aussie spin on the phenomenon. Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!, a documentary celebrating the island’s homegrown exploitation industry, arrived in 2008. (who appears here as a talking head) made the Grindhouse-style fake “Italian Spiderman” trailer in 2007, and went on to co-write the insane Hitler-hunting TV series “Danger 5” (one season was done in the style of 1960s men’s magazines, the other as an 80s action movie), which graced TV screens in 2011 and 2015. Narrator Des Mangan is a real Australian television cult film presenter (and screenwriter of the campy 1993 throwback Hercules Returns, which scooped the revivalist genre by a couple decades). In other words, Australians know and love their outré exploitation, and appreciate it precisely for the qualities that make it weird. As one talking head sums up the appeal of “Top Knot”: “….the whole thing doesn’t make any sense, but that’s what’s beautiful about it. When you watch a lot of media, watch a lot of movies and TV, you get bored, you get jaded, you’ve seen the same stuff over and over again, and you’re praying for some kind of weirdness, some kind of real lunacy to just grab you and shake you up and show you something new.” A better manifesto for the trash-oddity subgenre would be hard to script. These are our kind of people, folks.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“McCann and Pearce make their feature directing debut with a wonderfully bizarre and almost mind-bogglingly complex meta-treatment on not only the delightful weirdness of ’70s Japanese cinema, but also the culture of rabid fandom that eats this stuff up.”–J. Hurtado, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)
Addio Zio Tom; AKA Farewell Uncle Tom
“If you want to be fully convinced of the abominations of slavery, go on a southern plantation, and call yourself a negro trader. Then there will be no concealment; and you will see and hear things that will seem to you impossible among human beings with immortal souls.”–Harriet Ann Jacobs, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”
DIRECTED BY: ,
FEATURING: Uncredited actors, mostly Haitian
PLOT: A helicopter flies over a cotton field being worked by slaves in the antebellum south; two unseen men enter a plantation, and the matron of the family introduces them as “Italian journalists” performing an “inquest” into slavery. The time-traveling documentarians then take their camera into a slave ship, follow a slave trader, tour various plantations and slave auctions, and encountering Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Makepeace Thackeray, among other adventures. In a flash-forward, an African-American reads “The Confessions of Nat Turner” on the beach and imagines black militants breaking into white households and killing all the inhabitants with axes.
- The movie was mainly shot in Haiti, with some locations in the United States, after Brazil and several other countries refused to allow Jacopetti and Prosperi to shoot there due to their bad reputation. Production lasted for two years.
- The film was recut several times for different markets; in its original American release, the Nat Turner-inspired coda was removed as too incendiary, fearing it might spark copycat murders or riots. (Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke agreed, theorizing that the movie was a Jewish conspiracy to incite a race war.)
- The film was a financial and critical flop.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Your eye may be stunned by the acres upon acres of nude African flesh in the crowd scenes. We chose to focus on the final image, however; the modern black doctor squeezing the white boy’s beach ball until it pops, his fingers straining with a pent-up century’s worth of tension and rage, grinning maniacally.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Plantation helicopter; virgin seductress; afro-massacre
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This strange and audacious condemnation of American slavery, made by controversial Italian shockumentarians, is equal parts outrage and exploitation, with a side of absurdity. A time-traveling mockumentary full of rape, degradation, gore, and ambiguous moral outrage, Goodbye Uncle Tom is almost weirder in its conception and backstory than its execution.
An edited trailer for Goodbye Uncle Tom
COMMENTS: Beginning with a scene of documentarians flying their Continue reading 347. GOODBYE UNCLE TOM (1971)
L’hypothèse du tableau volé
“People love mystery, and that is why they love my paintings.”–
FEATURING: Jean Rougeul
PLOT: An unseen narrator explains that an exhibition of seven related paintings from the fictional artist Fredéric Tonnerre caused a scandal in the 19th century and were removed from public view. We are then introduced to the Collector, who owns six of the seven paintings—one of them has been stolen, he explains, leaving the story told through the artwork incomplete. Using live actors to recreate the canvases, the Collector walks through the paintings and constructs a bizarre interpretation of their esoteric meaning.
- Ruiz was originally hired by a French television channel to produce a documentary on writer/painter Pierre Klossowski. The project morphed into this fictional story that adapts themes and plots from several of Klossowski’s works, especially “La Judith de Frédéric Tonnerre” and “Baphomet.”
- Many of the figurants in the tableaux vivants were writers and staff from the influential journal “Cahiers du Cinema.” Future film star Jean Reno, in his first screen appearance, is also among those posing.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Obviously, one of the tableaux vivants—the three dimensional recreations of Tonnerre’s paintings featuring motionless, silent actors. From Diana and the hunt to Knights Templar playing chess, these are (perhaps) inexplicable scenes which, the narrator explains, “play[s] carefully on our curiosity as spectators who arrived too late.” The strangest of all is the tableau of a young man stripped to the waist with a noose around his neck, surrounded by men, one holding a cross, others in turbans and brandishing daggers, and three of whom are conspicuously pointing at objects within the scene. Hanging above them is a suspended mask.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: The hanged youth; whispering narrator; Knights Templar of Baphomet
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Performed with art house restraint in an impishly surreal spirit, this labyrinthine, postmodern meditation on art criticism plays like a movie done in the style of Last Year at Marienbad, adapted from a lost Jorge Luis Borges story.
Opening of The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting
COMMENTS: The ultimate question Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting Continue reading 325. THE HYPOTHESIS OF THE STOLEN PAINTING (1978)
“I have often thought it was very arrogant to suppose you could make a film for anybody but yourself… I like to think of The Falls as my own personal encyclopedia Greenaway-ensis.” -Peter Greenaway
NARRATED BY: Colin Cantlie, Hilarie Thompson, Martin Burrows, Sheila Canfield, Adam Leys
PLOT: Some years after a “Violent Unknown Event,” the biographies of its survivors whose surnames begin with the letters “F-A-L-L” are filmed and released as one edition in an intended series of documentaries cataloging all those afflicted. The documentary presents ninety-two survivors’ stories, describing their lives in brief and detailing including the (invariably) bizarre symptoms each has suffered from since the Event. The scope of the endeavor and the unreliability of the source material results in the repeated derailment of the flow of information.
- Peter Greenaway assembled The Falls over a five-year period from found footage and snippets filmed for other, mostly aborted, projects.
- Various references to the fictional “Tulse Luper” pertain, indirectly, to Peter Greenaway himself: Luper is Greenaway’s self-made alter-ego.
- Composer Michael Nyman provided the score for The Falls, marking his second (after the short Vertical Falls Remake) of eleven collaborations with Greenaway. They fell out over the director’s tampering with the composer’s Prospero’s Books recordings.
- At three hours and fifteen minutes in length, Greenaway never intended the viewer to watch the film in one sitting. Many have done so nonetheless.
- While The Falls was compiled for a number of reasons, one of its goals was to expand upon what Greenaway considered an unsatisfactory ending for Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Birds.
- An early biography features, in photographic form, the twin Quay brothers, who at that time had not yet established themselves as masters of stop-motion animation.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Oh boy. In a three-plus hour Greenaway opus consisting of hundreds of shots, stills, interviews, and intertitles, this is tougher than usual. Still, I’m leaning toward a striking image that has stuck in my mind even months after watching The Falls. One of the victims of the V.U.E. sings forcefully at the camera to a tune familiar to those who’ve heard Michael Nyman re-working it for the bulk of his career. Among the ninety-two vignettes, she provides perhaps the most disorienting moment, with her staccato operatic performance and brazenly inscrutable expression, illuminated as if she were in a Rembrandt painting.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Avian flu; Dreamers of Water, Categories 1 to 3; Sympathetic Tinnitus and other syndromes
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Peter Greenaway cranks up his love of lists as high as the medium of film can reasonably take him in his first feature. Posing as a documentary assembled by a governmental information bureau, the list of ninety-two “V.U.E.” victims acts both as a long series of (sometimes very short) short stories and as an insanely thought-through running gag. It turns the notion of documentary on its head, undermining the authoritative voiceover and ostensibly pertinent footage (photos, interviews, documents, etc.) through the sheer volume of absurdity, whimsy, and subversive wordplay.
Spectacle Theater’s trailer for The Falls
COMMENTS: With virtually all of his movies, Peter Greenaway Continue reading 322. THE FALLS (1980)
Lance Lizardi and others showcase their obsession with, and similarities to, their reptilian friends.
Content Warning: This short contains some violent imagery.