Tag Archives: Mystical

CAPSULE: EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (2015)

El Abrazo de la Serpiente

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ciro Guerra

FEATURING: Antonio Bolivar, Nilbio Torres, , Brionne Davis

PLOT: In two journeys separated by decades, an Amazonian hermit and shaman reluctantly guides two European scientists on trips to find a legendary medicinal plant.

Still from Embrace of the Serpent (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s too weird to win an Academy Award, but not weird enough for us. Still, fans of s Amazonian epics and Apocalypse Now will find a lot to connect with here, while Embrace retains its own feverish flavor.

COMMENTS: As cinema’s first black and white arthouse ethnobotany trip movie, Embrace of the Serpent is a singular event. More based on setting than plot, the languid, reflective trip upriver may grow wearisome for some, but will reward the patient. The emerald Amazon jungle is subsumed into a grayscale haze, making the trip seem both like a vintage period picture and a dream.

One of the Embrace‘s biggest strengths is that it generally steers away from the lectern, instead delivering an eye-level view of a historic culture clash. We see that the Amazonian tribes aren’t inherently virtuous, but can be just as petty, selfish and inhospitable as their white brethren. The examination of the effect of European ideas (aside from the obvious evils like slavery) on the Amazonian natives is nuanced. European Theo argues the tribes should not have a compass because he believes that access to such easy technology will cause their indigenous methods of orientation using astronomy and knowledge of the winds to fade away. His guide Karamakate, who otherwise hates white culture precisely for its capacity to displace his own, unexpectedly makes the cosmopolitan argument that “knowledge belongs to all men.” The compass debate reveals a more complicated analysis than the simple “brown man good, white man bad” anti-colonial dogmatism you might have feared. Karamakate, too, is far from a simplistic noble savage; he can be peevish, manipulative, and bigoted in his own way. Karamakate is far more noble for the flaws that make him into more than a mere symbol or stereotype.

The tone is quiet, melancholy, and mystical. The older Karamakate complains of having become a “chullachaqui,” a sort of shell or wraith, a doppelganger stripped of vitality, memory and purpose. Those looking for surreal thrills will want to pay attention to the two stops at a mission along the way. The earlier expedition is reluctantly hosted at a remote Christian outpost where a single surviving priest oversees a colony of Amazonian orphans. When they return decades later, the mission has devolved into a strange and anarchic cult blending native beliefs with Christian ones. This imaginary sociological experiment is so intoxicating that you may wish the entire movie had been built around this location. The film finishes with a somewhat superfluous color hallucination sequence full of geometric fractals and jaguars that plays either like a more sedate version of Altered States‘s mushroom trips, or like 2001‘s climax with an ecological spin.

The plant the European scientists seek, yakruna, is known by the Latin name “Macguffinus plotdevicis.” It becomes whatever the story needs it to be at the time: a mind-expanding psychedelic, a panacea for ills of both the body and soul, a symbol of Karamakate’s tribal identity. It’s “the stuff that dreams are made of,” and by the end it goes up in smoke, becoming not much of anything at all. Embrace is a leisurely trip downriver towards a muddy allegory, but there are moments when you feel like Col. Kurtz is waiting just around the next bend.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Filled with dream imagery, never-quite-explained symbolism, and a collection of weird (and inhospitable) characters that might have emerged from Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust or the more feverish fever dreams of Werner Herzog — with more than a little of Mr. Coppola’s Apocalypse Now around the edges.”–Ken Hanke, Mountain XPress (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: HEART OF GLASS (1976)

Herz aus Glas

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Josef Bierbichler, Sonja Skiba, Stefan Güttler

PLOT: A Bavarian town at the beginning of the 19th century loses its master glassblower, the creator of a prized ruby-red glass. As the town’s lifeblood dissipates, the population goes mad, with a shepherd the only voice of reason remaining untouched by the malaise.

Still from Heart of Glass (1976)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: In Heart of Glass, Herzog captures the effect of an entire town losing its mind. By hypnotizing virtually every actor, the dreaminess of the shots melds with the action of the citizens, creating a dark, dreamworld effect. The most grounded character, Hias, is a seer of visions both immediate and far flung—and he is the village’s only grip on reality.

COMMENTS: This pensive movie begins with a rear-shot of a man looking over a herd of cows. His first words are in voiceover, played against grand scenes of waterfalls and nature: “I look into the distance, to the end of the world. Before the day is over, the end will come.” This seer (Joseph Bierbichler) is named Hias, and he is a shepherd of a nearby Bavarian village. A group of townsmen come to him with words of fear: “the time of giants has returned.” Their town has just lost its legendary glassblower, and as the seer predicts, the end comes to them before the day is out.

Herzog’s Heart of Glass maintains the unearthly, disconnected tone that is set up in the opening shots throughout. Under the spell of hypnosis, the actors portraying the townspeople all behave as if they are several shifts from reality. The worst affected is the town’s magistrate, a man of means who, used to the great wealth the glass export brought in, crumbles when it is lost. First, he insists the glassblower’s house be dismantled and foundation dug up, just in case the secret formula is hidden therein. He demands the seizure of a davenport that the craftsman had given to his mother, in case the solution is to be found inside. He laments, “the untidiness of the stars makes my head ache.” The tragedy has no explanation in earthly logic, and the whole town faces their doom with such disbelief that no one can now seem to think for himself.

Events take an increasingly desperate turn. As predicted by Hias, one of a pair of friends dies breaking the fall of the other. A plan is hatched that all the remaining ruby glass is to be thrown into the lake, to make it turn red. Eventually there is murder and arson as the magistrate—the throbbing head of the hive-mind that’s taken over the populace—goes to greater and greater extremes to bring the secret back from the void into which it has slipped. Hias sees this, and laments, but cannot stop what occurs. During an enigmatic scene in the village tavern, he sits flanked by a white hen and a dancing simpleton, and prophesies far into the future, seeing World War I, World War II, and eventually nuclear annihilation: “…where the black box drops, green and yellow dust arises.”

Heart of Glass ends on an allegorical note. Having fled the doomed town, Hias returns to his beloved woods. Traveling through the primordial forest, he seems at one with it—until he peers into a dark cave. He goes into a fit and, upon recovery, has another of his visions. He sees two islands, “on the fringes of existence,” that have no other human contact, and do not know the earth is round. After years of spying the horizon, a man and his followers take off on a tiny craft to head toward the abyss. “It may have been seen as a sign of hope,” Hias intones, “that the birds followed them out into the vastness of the sea.” Change is terrifying, but it is also the only way forward.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The elusiveness of ‘Heart of Glass’ makes it something of a disappointment. But it is too mysteriously lovely to be regarded as a failure.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: VERA (2003)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Francisco Athié

FEATURING: Marco Antonio Arzate, Urara Kusanagi

PLOT: Trapped underground, a miner hallucinates, eventually encountering a green alien creature who leads him into the spirit world. Still from Vera (2003)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: On sheer weirdness, this trip skirting the veil that separates life and death would make the List easily. A couple of faults hold it back from making it on the first ballot, however: it’s very slow to get started, and the imagination behind the visual effects greatly exceeds the budget’s capacity to realize them.

COMMENTS: With this production, I get the feeling that Francisco Athié saw the chance to make the dream visionary feature of a lifetime and decided to seize it, even though the necessary funding wasn’t there. When Vera‘s imagery is on, it’s mind-meltingly sublime, but there are too many times when the CGI isn’t up to the tasks Athié sets for it. The movie serves as a reminder of why you should always shell out the big bucks for the top-shelf peyote, and not save a few pesos buying the shriveled-up buttons on sale for half off.

Although the love that went into it is clear, Vera feels stretched out: there is probably forty-five minutes of good stuff, and fifteen minutes of amazing stuff, here, but it’s padded out to an eighty-minute feature. The first ten minutes wordlessly depict life in an isolated Mexican village, while the title character doesn’t show up until the movie is halfway over. The first hallucinatory moment introduces the trademark visual awkwardness: it’s meant to depict a bone-chilling wasteland, but it looks like the main character is suddenly playing a mime walking in a stiff wind in front of a green-screen snowstorm. After twenty-five minutes with very little of consequence occurring, you may feel like giving up on Vera, but if you stick around you will be rewarded, because things start cooking after the old man trapped in the mine adds urine and blood from his penis (ouch!) to a cauldron of boiling lead in order to conjure up a jade statue of a Mayan god. The miner simultaneously prays to the Christian God, and to “Lady Balam” and the Winds, and modern mythology is added to the Christian/pagan mix when he discovers a little green (wo)man who projects a stream of 0s and 1s from an orifice in her torso.

This creature, the mystical “Vera” of the title, is at times crudely computer-generated, with a bobbing head that makes it resemble a character in a Star Wars ripoff video game, while at other times the entity is portrayed by the mesmerizing Japanese dancer Urara Kusanagi. The two different embodiments of the character are certainly weird, but probably not in the way Athié intended. The main effect is to draw attention to the cheapness of the effects, and make you wish the CGI had been scrapped for more scenes with the graceful and mysterious Kusanagi. Marvelous mystical visions accompany the doomed man as Vera guides him to the afterlife: a child skeleton that dances with Vera, the Virgin Mary appearing in a stalactite, and the green-skinned guide fetching fruit off of an Eden-like tree. And if the visuals are at times sketchy, the music and sound design, which ranges from ambient drones to Amazonian percussion, is always on point setting the chthonic mood. The resulting concoction mixes the promiscuously mythological preoccupations of an with the deliberate pacing of an , but, unfortunately, as realized by the visual effects team behind a SyFy shark movie.

“Bright Lights Film Journal” supplies insight on the film’s title: “According to writer-editor-director Athié, Vera ‘means trust and faith in Cyrillic (Russian), the truth in Italian, the side of the road in Spanish, and it is a very beautiful feminine name. Therefore, in a way, it points to the faith and trust you need to follow a path that is true to your own perception of the otherworldly’.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a strange, hallucinatory film that reveals itself in a slow, ritualistic way.”–Marilyn Ferdinand, Ferdy on Films

(This movie was nominated for review by NGBoo, who described it as “a beautiful metaphysical fantasy, that explores the afterlife, inspired by Mayan and Christian religions.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

162. THE LEGEND OF SURAM FORTRESS (1984)

Ambavi Suramis Tsikhitsa; Legend of the Surami Fortress (alternate translation)

“In Ron Holloway’s reverent documentary Paradjanov: A Requiem… an unbowed Paradjanov speaks nonchalantly of being accused of ‘surrealism,’ never pointing out the surreality of a government that views surrealism as a crime.”–Keith Phipps

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Sergei Parajanov, Dodo Abashidze

FEATURING: Leila Alibegashvilli, Sofiko Chiaureli, Zura Kipshidze, Dodo Abashidze, Veriko Andjaparidze

PLOT: On the desolate steppes of Central Asia, a Georgian prince has given slave Durmishkhan his freedom; although he promises to make his fortune and buy her freedom, his lover, Vardo, senses that he will never return. Indeed, in his travels Durmishkhan meets another woman and fathers a child with her, while a bereaved Vardo becomes a celibate fortune teller. Years later, with a Muslim invasion imminent, the czar seeks guidance from Vardo on how to stop the fortress of Suram from collapsing every time his men rebuild it.

The Legend of Suram Fortress (1984)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Legend of Suram Fortress was Sergei Parajanov’s first film after spending 15 years in and out of Soviet prisons on charges ranging from homosexuality, rape, and pornography to bribery and trafficking in religious icons. Many view his persecution as politically motivated. Along with intellectuals and celebrities like , fellow filmmakers , François Truffaut, , , , and all agitated for his release.
  • Parajanov was born in Georgia to Armenian parents, and began his filmmaking career in Ukraine. Each of Parajanov’s major films is built around the folklore of a specific Soviet satellite state: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) revolved around Ukrainian legends, The Color of Pomegranates (1969) dealt with an Armenian poet, and The Legend of Suram Fortress covered the mythology of his native Georgia. Ashik Kerib (1988) shows an Azerbaijani influence.
  • Although the movie bears all of Parajanov’s stylistic trademarks, Dodo Abashidze (who also plays the role of Osman-Agha in the film) is credited as co-director, as he is also in Parajanov’s final completed film, Ashik Kerib. Abashidze has no solo directing credits but was a popular actor, and his influence is viewed as a major factor in getting Parajanov released from jail and allowed to return to filmmaking.
  • The Legend of Suram Fortress was based on Georgian folktales which had been turned into a novel by the writer Daniel Chonkadze in the 19th century. The story had been made into a silent film in 1922.
  • The Suram (or Surami) fortress still stands in Georgia.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: This is a hard choice indeed: The Legend of Suram Fortress is a work of visual poetry, and picking out a single frame is like picking out the single best line from “The Iliad” or “The Odyssey.” Each scene in Suram is a meticulous exercise in staging, pageantry, and costuming. For our representative moment, we’ll chose the ceremony where the peasants pray to St. George to protect them from the (metaphorical Muslim) dragon: costumed worshipers parade by in a line, led by a prancing white horse decorated with silvery tinsel, before a smoky field, while the Saint’s icon appears as a glittering ball of light. The scene is low-tech but beautiful, literally realized with smoke and mirrors. In a movie with such a rigorously realized formalism, almost any other choice of image would be equally indelible.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Fans of will likely to groove to the vibe of Sergei Parajanov, recognizing the obsessively arranged compositions and the mysticism that hangs like thick clouds of incense over the film. Rather than taking a wide-angle, pan-theistic view like Jodorowsky, however, Parajanov focuses each of his films narrowly and intently on the legends of a single culture. In Suram Fortress he digs deep to uncover fragmentary narrative relics from ancient Georgia, telling of the legendary foundation of a nation in a confused era when Christianity, Islam and paganism all fought for the hearts of her people. Soaking in a bath of exotic medieval sounds and images, you emerge from the movie feeling Georgia in your bones, while at the same time realizing you know next to nothing about the culture Parajanov simultaneously illuminates and obscures. The visions crumble before your eyes as he builds them.


Festival trailer for The Legend of Suram Fortress

COMMENTS: Although there is a (digressive and fractured) story, the essence of The Legend of Suram Fortress is in its astounding visual tableaux: Continue reading 162. THE LEGEND OF SURAM FORTRESS (1984)

86. DEAD MAN (1995)

“Do what you will this life’s a fiction,
And is made up of contradiction.”

–William Blake, Gnomic Verses

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jim Jarmusch

FEATURING: Johnny Depp, , Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, , , Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, Mili Avatal, Gabriel Byrne

PLOT: Mild-mannered accountant Bill Blake heads west to take a job as an accountant in the wild town of Machine, but when he arrives he discovers the position has been filled and he is stuck on the frontier with no money or prospects. Blake becomes a wanted man after he kills the son of the town tycoon in self defense. Wounded, he flees to the wilderness where he’s befriended by an Indian named Nobody, who believes he is the poet William Blake.

Still from Dead Man (1995)

BACKGROUND:

  • William Blake, the namesake of Johnny Depp’s character in Dead Man, was a poet, painter and mystic who lived from 1757 to 1827. Best known for Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, he is considered one of the forerunners of English Romanticism.
  • Jarmusch wrote the script with Depp and Farmer in mind for the leads.
  • Elements of the finished script of Dead Man reportedly bear a striking similarity to “Zebulon,” an unpublished screenplay by novelist/screenwriter Rudy (Glen and Randa, Two-Lane Blacktop) Wurlitzer, which Jarmusch had read and discussed filming with the author. Wurlitzer later reworked the script into the novel The Drop Edge of Yonder.
  • Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum coined the term “acid Western”—a category in which he also included The Shooting, Greaser’s Palace and El Topo—to describe Dead Man. Jarmusch himself called the film a “psychedelic Western.”
  • composed the harsh, starkly beautiful soundtrack by improvising on electric guitar while watching the final cut of the film. The Dead Man soundtrack (buy) includes seven solo guitar tracks from Young, plus film dialogue and clips of Depp reciting William Blake’s poetry.
  • Farmer speaks three Native American languages in the film: Blackfoot, Cree, and Makah (which he learned to speak phonetically). None of the indigenous dialogue is subtitled.
  • Jarmusch, who retains all the rights to his films, refused to make cuts to Dead Man requested by distributor Miramax; the director believed that the film was dumped on the market without sufficient promotion because of his reluctance to play along with the studio.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Nobody peering through William Blake’s skin to his bare skull during his peyote session? Iggy Pop in a prairie dress? Those are memorable moments, but in a movie inspired by poetry, it’s the scene of wounded William Blake, his face red with warpaint, curling up on the forest floor with a dead deer that’s the most poetically haunting.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Dead Man is a lyrical and hypnotic film, with a subtle but potent and lingering weirdness that the viewer must tease out.  It’s possible to view the movie merely as a directionless, quirky indie Western; but that would be to miss out on the mystical, dreamlike tinge of this journey into death.


Original trailer for Dead Man

COMMENTS: Dead Man begins on a locomotive as a naif accountant is traveling from Continue reading 86. DEAD MAN (1995)

62. ALTERED STATES (1980)

Recommended

“You don’t have to tell me how weird you are. I know how weird you are… Even sex is a mystical experience for you. You carry on like a flagellant, which can be very nice, but I sometimes wonder if it’s me that’s being made love to. I feel like I’m being harpooned by some raging monk in the act of receiving God.”–Blair Brown to William Hurt in Altered States

DIRECTED BY: Ken Russell

FEATURING: William Hurt, , Charles Haid, Bob Balaban

PLOT: Dr. Eddie Jessup is a Harvard physiologist who used to experience religious visions as a teenager and is now studying the phenomenon of hallucinations caused by sensory deprivation in isolation tanks.  His inquiries into the nature of consciousness eventually take him to an isolated tribe in Mexico who use a powerful psychedelic mushroom in ancient Toltec religious rituals.  When he combines the magic mushrooms and the isolation tank, he finds that the mixture causes him to regress to an earlier evolutionary state.

Still from Altered States (1980)

BACKGROUND:

  • The character of Dr. Jessup was based on the real life Dr. John Lilly, who invented the isolation tank and experimented with using hallucinogens in combination with it before moving on to research on communicating with dolphins.
  • Lilly tells the tale of a fellow researcher who took the drug ketamine and believed that he had turned into a “pre-hominid” and was being stalked by a leopard, which was presumably the kernel for the the idea of genetic regression.
  • This was William Hurt’s first starring role.
  • A young Drew Barrymore, in her film debut, briefly appears as one of Jessup’s children.
  • Paddy (Network) Chayefsky, the three-time Oscar winning screenwriter, adapted his own novel for the screen; he was so displeased with the final results that he had his name removed from the credits.  Chayefsky had originally written the story as a satire of the pretensions of the scientific community.  The original director, Arthur Penn, resigned after disputes with the writer.  Russell and Chayefsky reportedly argued on the set over the actors’ line readings and performances.  Chayefsky’s original novel is long out of print.
  • The seven-eyed lamb that appears in Jessup’s first vision comes straight from the Book of Revelations: “…in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes…” (Rev 5:6).

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  One of the two major trip sequences (you can take your pick).  The crucified seven-eyed, seven-horned lamb from the first  is a popular favorite. In a sense, however, the quick-cut surrealistic montages play as a whole images that can’t be chopped up into constituent parts.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Ken Russell makes it weird. There’s no director more eager or better suited to make a science fiction movie about hallucinogenic drugs that bring about religious visions.  With its long, intense episodes of druggy delirium, Altered States may well be the greatest trip movie ever made (and it’s certainly the most expensive). Put it this way: you know the movie’s weird when the sight of a naked, simian William Hurt gnawing on a bloody gazelle is one of the film’s more humdrum visions.

Original trailer for Altered States

COMMENTS: There are fishes swimming in the sky behind William Hurt’s head.  He offers his Continue reading 62. ALTERED STATES (1980)