A duplex of pro wrestlers get into trouble with the law when their landlord dies in a bicycle accident explosion.
A duplex of pro wrestlers get into trouble with the law when their landlord dies in a bicycle accident explosion.
Sally Cruikshank’s zany animation style is distilled into its pure crystalline form in this short. It’s a psychedelic experience with so much going on that very little sticks.
“It’s like ’60 Minutes’ on acid.”–David Byrne describing True Stories
“What time is it? No time to look back.” –The Narrator, True Stories
FEATURING: David Byrne, John Goodman, Swoosie Kurtz, Spalding Gray
PLOT: An eager outsider (Byrne) visits the fictional town of Virgil, Texas as they prepare for the state’s 150th anniversary with a “Celebration of Specialness.” Acting as narrator and tour guide, he meets various folks around the area, learning about their relationships, their work at the computer manufacturing plant, and their personal hobbies. The most prominent of the “true stories” is would-be country singer Louis Fyne’s search for love.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Over an idiosyncratic family dinner, Spalding Gray provides an enthusiastic monologue about the problems of modern life, using various colorful entrees and sides as visual aides for his explanations. As the plates inexplicably light up and the music of a string quartet builds, Gray, in his heavy Rhode Island accent, expounds upon the merging of work and play, and the rapidly developing tech industry in Virgil, ending the speech in a dimly lit family tableaux as he and his children bow their heads in prayer.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Avant-garde mall fashion show; conspiracy theory sermon at the Church of the SubGenius; David Byrne aimlessly talking to the audience while driving around Texas
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: His goofy, gangly persona—so out of place in the rural Texas setting—is already weird enough, but really Byrne is exposing the weirdness of everyday life, with eccentric characters, loud costumes, eclectic musical numbers, and a lot of fourth wall breaking. It’s a strange merging of artistic experimentation and down-to-earth themes; the combined effect is both charming and bizarre.
COMMENTS: After imparting a brief overview of the history of Continue reading 361. TRUE STORIES (1986)
DIRECTED BY: Trey Parker
FEATURING: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Dian Bachar, Ian Hardin, John Hegel
PLOT: Alferd Packer and a small band of hopeful gold-rushers lead an ill-fated expedition from Utah to Colorado through the snowy Rocky Mountains. Six walk in; one walks out. It’s also a musical.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The base premise of a comedy-musical about a historic cannibal gold-rusher is certainly attractive enough to watchers of weird. Beyond that, Cannibal! The Musical, while funny and charming, doesn’t shoot for the extremes of weirdness commonly seen on the List. It’s not even the first musical western comedy we’ve reviewed here, and it’s way at the end of the line of movies we’ve considered.
COMMENTS: Fans of the animated franchise “South Park” can already tell you how skilled Trey Parker and Matt Stone are at writing musicals; the theatrical feature South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut was a surprising hit with show-stopping numbers, and then “The Book of Mormon” (the play, not the book) cemented their reputation. And of course, black humor is a given with this creative pair. So it’s interesting to see their work on this low-budget production when they were still students at University of Colorado-Boulder, before “South Park” made them famous. It released originally as Alferd Packer: The Musical in 1993 before Troma Entertainment, spiritual peers to Parker/Stone, picked it up for distribution as Cannibal! The Musical.
For a hopeful few seconds it meets the expectation you have for a Troma movie, when the film opens with a deranged cannibal attacking and taking bites out of hapless settlers in the snowy woods. This turns out to be a flashback from a courtroom, circa 1883, where defendant Alferd Packer (Trey Parker) is on trial for murdering his traveling party. Later, in his cell, a local reporter who’s attracted to bad boys goads him into telling her his story, by segue of talking about his horse, Liane. And so we’re swept into the musical tale of the ill-fated Alferd Packer’s Gold Rush expedition in 1874, accompanied by a ragtag band of optimistic hangers-on—teenagers James Humphrey (Matt Stone) and George Noon (Dian Bachar), Mormon priest Shannon Bell (Ian Hardin), butcher Frank Miller (Jason McHugh), and twinkle-toed Israel Swan (John Hegel)—none of whom have the slightest clue about gold-mining or surviving treks through the Rockies in the dead of winter.
Of course, for a campy comedy musical, the movie treats the historical Packer’s tale with about as much accuracy as Mel Brooks recounting the Spanish Inquisition. Townspeople and random pioneers on the trail warn the party of grave doom, Indians, and a cyclops (who proves disappointingly un-Harryhausen). The group stays disciplined by putting individuals on time out when things get uncivil. Bad luck haunts the crew in every way from losing the horse (to which Packer will sing an ode) to stumbling into random bear traps, and the crew gets lost enough to chance upon the Grand Canyon on their way from Utah to Colorado. A band of punk-rock trappers taunt the party along the way. Asian kung-fu Indians beset the party. While not a lot makes sense, the story moves at a swift enough clip that you’ll barely mind. Be wary after watching it so you aren’t caught idly singing “Hang the Bastard” in inappropriate contexts.
Formed from the quirky imaginations of the Parker/Stone team, Cannibal! The Musical is an enjoyable romp with plenty of the team’s trademark dark humor. The production at times is patterned after Oklahoma! There’s parody of tropes both musical (songs break down mid-verse as the singers argue about chord theory) and western (“Look at all these teepees we have; because we’re Indians!”), yet despite the gory opening scene there’s barely a whiff of a horror aspect: our Troma expectations fizzle after the first five minutes and don’t rekindle until the final twenty. Considering it was a student effort that started out as a fake trailer for film class before the professor called the team’s bluff, the movie is an excellent, if silly, effort. Its legacy is a cult following, the occasional stage revival, and the introduction of “shpadoinkle” into weirdophile vocabulary. But it only has passing business flirting with the wild west of weird cinema.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It’s all pretty stupid, but at times, there are refreshingly ludicrous notes that even people old enough to see this movie without a guardian can appreciate. One approach: Imagine the film taking place in South Park animation. If Cartman were ripping that man’s arm off and eating it, it might be cute.”–Anita Gates, The New York Times (1998 revival)
William A. Wellman’s 1931 Safe in Hell is lesser-knownfilm, and one of the best. It is viscerally directed and has a powerhouse performance from lead actress Dorothy Mackaill, who deserves to be better known on the basis of this performance alone.
Within minutes. we are in pre-code terrain with Gail (Mackaill) squeezed into a negligée and garter, smoking a fag, and receiving a call from her madame to go meet her trick, who turns out to be her sleazy ex-employer Piet (Ralf Harolde). Gail is a hooker with standards, and after she refuses to sleep with Piet, she conks him out with some prohibition gin and takes off, accidentally setting the hotel on fire.
Wanted for Piet’s murder, Gail goes on the lam. Her sailor boyfriend Carl (Donald Cook) smuggles her onto a ship and drops her off on a Caribbean island with no extradition laws.
Before Carl takes off on his maritime tour, he marries Gail and promises to send her monthly expenses, but mean island executioner Bruno (Morgan Wallace) intercepts the letter and takes the money.
Having faked his death, Piet shows up at the island and tries to rape Gail, who shoots him dead. Bruno offers to defend her in exchange for some nookie, but she’ll hang before breaking her wedding vows.
OK, it’s a tad melodramatic in the scripting and in some of the performances, but Mackaill’s feistiness and Wellman’s brisk direction override the films flaws, delivering a superior pre-code effort. Although it’s typical of early 1930s output in having little music and static vignettes, it moves quickly and preposterously, akin to late. Mackaill bounces off the walls and often gets physical, not hesitating to give one brute after another a slap to the face. Safe in Hell plays fast and furious with the Curse of Eve mindset. Gail refuses to be a receptacle for thugs; she’s the most ethical person in the film, and takes a hooker martyr’s sweaty halo. Lurid and emotionally charged, it’s not only pre-code, but ahead of its time and still relevant.
At the opposite end of the timeline—one of Hollywood’s last full-throttle orgies before the Production Code began rigorously enforcing moral censorship— Mitchell Liesen’s 1934 Murder at the Vanities has something for everyone. There’s Duke Ellington (who belongs on jazz’s Mount Rushmore) and his big band playing “Sweet Marijuana,” (so sweet, it almost inspired me to light up, and I hate pot); a nymph dick (private eye, that is); and interracial can-can dancing with scantily clad gamins and-like choreography. It’s a celebration of the end of prohibition, along with the eroticism of (unpunished) murder, with winks and fast-talking, wisecracking semi-pornographic dialogue.
It’s not as plot-oriented as Safe in Hell, and hell, I’m not even sure the plot is relevant whatsoever. It’s more of a musical comedy than a whodunit: you’ll guess whodunit within seconds, but you won’t give a hoot. It’s all about the wackiness of a lost time period. If you’re attached to anything approaching “realism” or “believability,” stay the hell away. It’s my personal favorite pre-code film, although it’s by no means the best, one that I’ve revisited countless times. It makes me warm all over.
Next week is a 366 first: a silent serial from a naive surrealist.
“The expanse of humour in American life has historically shown the health of the democratic system in its ability to absorb criticism and analysis, even in their most pointed, satiric, sardonic, or absurdist forms, or when cast solely as entertainment.”–Russel Carmony, “The rise of American fascism — and what humour can do to stop it”
FEATURING: Ole Olsen, Chic Johnson, Martha Raye, , Mischa Auer, Jane Frazee, Robert Paige, Lewis Howard, Shemp Howard, Richard Lane, Elisha Cook Jr.
PLOT: The film begins with the projectionist (who will play an active role in the story) loading a reel of film: a musical number set in Hell. That scene ends with the arrival of “our prize guests,” Olsen and Johnson, who are in turn interrupted by the director who objects to their series of gags and demands that they have a story “because every picture has one.” The director presents them with a script for “a picture about a picture about ‘Hellzapoppin”, which loosely revolves a love triangle among socialites who are also staging a play (with disastrous results).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The rapid pace of the visual gags makes this one almost impossible to pick. The opening seven minutes in Hell alone could probably yield half a dozen respectable candidates. We’ll go with the moment that Olsen (I think) blows on his diminutive taxi driver, transforming him in a flash of smoke into a jockey on a horse (with, for some reason, a tic-tac-toe game stenciled on its side). The fella is immediately launched from his saddle on a trip into Hell’s sulfurous stratosphere—but that’s already another image altogether.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Canned guys and gals; Frankenstein’s monster hurls ballerina; invisible comedian hemispheres
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A staircase collapses, dumping socialites into Hell where devils with pitchforks do somersaults off trampolines and juggle flaming torches. Women are roasted on spits. Farm animals tumble out of a taxicab like it was a clown car. The projectionist runs the film back and plays a scene again, to a different conclusion. And that’s just the first five minutes! “This is Hellzapoppin’!”
COMMENTS: I can’t tell which one is Olsen and which one is Johnson. This may seem like a small point of confusion in a movie in which Continue reading 336. HELLZAPOPPIN’ (1941)
DIRECTED BY: Peter Brook
FEATURING:, , Glenda Jackson, Michael Williams
PLOT: The director of the Charenton asylum permits the prisoners to put on a play about the murder of one of the architects of the French Revolution; the machinations of the play’s notorious author, combined with the unique insanities of the cast, consistently threaten to derail the production.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Marat/Sade is easy to admire but difficult to love, purposely distancing itself from its audience with a presentational style, a remote historical setting, and characters who are all but impossible to empathize with. By putting the great debates over the efficacy and morality of revolutionary fervor into the mouths of the sick and deranged, the movie declares its allegiance to a stranger flag. But while it is confrontational and occasionally repellent, Marat/Sade is still a thoughtful, methodical, and ultimately a sober work.
COMMENTS: Every once in a while, a play shows up on Broadway that is so alive with the enthusiasm and commitment of its cast, so daring in its subject matter, so determined to break away from the complacency and redundancy of its contemporaries, that it becomes a smash on the scale of the more attention-getting musicals. Recent years have seen plays such as “Angels in America,” “August: Osage County,” and “Take Me Out” demand the spotlight; in 1966, it was “Marat/Sade” that was all the buzz in the theater world. After the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of Peter Weiss’ original German-language play essentially launched the British fringe, it traveled across the Atlantic to dazzle America, becoming not only a hit but also shorthand for subversive, challenging theater.
So a movie version has a lot to live up to, and it’s a tribute to director Peter Brook’s vision that he manages to find the cinematic elements in the staging of a play. For Marat/Sade is working at multiple levels: a film of a play screening before an audience in which a play is being performed for an audience. It’s easy to lose track of which one you should be following. Consider the choices de Sade makes in casting his production. His Marat is portrayed by a paranoiac, Corday is a narcoleptic, Duperret a sex criminal. How much importance we should ascribe to these choices? Is this de Sade jesting with the historical figures? Is it Weiss assigning another layer of meaning to characters already laden with subtext? Is the whole thing a joke, designed to set up situations like Corday’s frequent mid-play naps? If theater is an author’s medium and film is a director’s medium, but one of the protagonists is a writer and director of the very work we’re watching, just who the hell is responsible?
Brook takes great pains to remind us that we are watching a play. The character of the Herald is constantly there to remind the actors of their lines. A chorus frequently chimes in with musical numbers that sound like lesser Newley/Bricusse tunes. And we get shots of the audience watching from the other side of the prison bars. But we get just as many hints that this is an impossible play. The script seems all too prepared to address the objections of the asylum director in dialogue. Our Marat seems not an actor at all, but the very man back from the dead, and de Sade engages him in debate as if he were the genuine article. And how the heck did this collection of crazies learn all these elaborate speeches, anyway? Whenever you think you’ve got your footing, Marat/Sade is there to give you a good shove.
Possibly the finest compliment you can give Marat/Sade is that you finish it thrilled and exhausted, but also unsure if you understood any of it. In trying to figure it out, I find it helpful to go back to that monstrously long (possibly even Guinness record-worthy) title, which is usually trimmed down to highlight the ostensible antagonists of the piece. In doing so, possibly the most important word to understanding the work as a whole is lost: “asylum.” In assessing the French Revolution, a particularly bloody uprising that overthrew a monarchy and then blundered through violence until another dictator arrived to grab control, it seems as though no one involved had the wisdom or foresight to anticipate the bloodshed that would result. By putting the subject in the hands of the insane, it specifically labels the enlightened masters of the uprising as insane themselves, and by placing the play under the auspices of a politician who represents the new dictatorship, it goes for broke and says everyone is crazy. Revolution is bloody, violent, destructive. To think otherwise, or to think that it won’t reach you, is dangerous folly, and Marat/Sade wants you to know that even if—especially if—you think you’re in control, then you’re next.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The typical dish or cable viewer, then, might utter ‘What the hell is this?’ and gaze upon the weirdness only momentarily, without even having put down the remote… Strange scenes can be felt but not always understood, and perhaps its impossible to do so.” – Brian Koller, Films Graded (DVD)
(This movie was nominated for review by Caleb Moss, who called it “pretty strange, to say the least.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)