Tag Archives: Non-narrative

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: A SPELL TO WARD OFF THE DARKNESS (2013)

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DIRECTED BY: Ben Rivers, Ben Russell

FEATURING: Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, Nicholas McMaster, Weasel Walter

PLOT: A commune member goes off on his own for a more solitarty existence but eventually heads to the city, where he plays in a black metal rock band.

Still from A Spell to Ward off the Darkness (2013)

COMMENTS: Michael Winterbottom’s 2004 romantic drama 9 Songs is ostensibly about the life of a relationship, in which we see the central couple enjoy each other’s company, argue, and have sex; in between, they go to concerts and see bands like Franz Ferdinand, the Von Bondies, and the Dandy Warhols. The back-and-forth nature of the production begs the question of whether the songs are there to justify the explicit sex scenes, or if the sex is an excuse to showcase all these up-and-coming bands. 

I thought of this as I followed the tripartite journey of the central figure in A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness. This man who goes from a commune to a lone encampment in the woods to a concert in a small nightclub never speaks, never offers any insight into his heart or mind. Even in performance, he and his fellow bandmates sing exclusively in wordless intonations. So what are we seeing? Is this concert the culmination of a journey? The logical endpoint for his travels from nature to urbanity? Or did the band come first, and the movie was reverse-engineered to get us here?

As winner of the award for Best Documentary Feature at the Torino Film Festival—aside from reminding us just how many film festivals there are out there—Spell brings up the question of just what a documentary is. Nothing in A Spell to Ward off the Darkness is fictional, strictly speaking, because nothing in it is functionally narrative. Arguably the most vérité section of the film is in the first third, when we hang out with a bunch of hippies at their wooded retreat as they build a small dome, frolic about in the sauna, laze by a river, and engage in idle chit-chat. It seems pleasantly rustic (they still have wi-fi and sound systems), and the residents are a little crunchy-granola, but not annoyingly so. Still, there’s a distinct lack of specifics. We don’t even know anyone’s name, let alone what led them to walk away from society or permitted them to find each other. It documents by capturing on film, but completely elides the facts or context that would give the images meaning.

But the remainder of the film doesn’t even possess the veneer of the found moment. When one of the campers (Lowe, whom we’ve only seen occasionally up to this point) decides to go off and live on his own, it feels enormously calculated, as we jump directly to the middle of his escape in a canoe. Nothing has precipitated the move, and not much will come of it as he hikes his way to a remote cabin where he can read, fish, and get dressed for the last portion of the film. Having put on makeup and set fire to the cabin, Lowe heads into town to join a concert in a tavern. Surely this was no surprise to the filmmakers. Certainly these are known events, staged and shot with forethought and intention. So the questions arise again: What are we seeing? Does the dog wag the tail, or vice-versa?

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness is a beautifully shot motion picture, and the slow and contemplative pacing is enticing, encouraging you to watch to see where it’s going to go. But it isn’t going anywhere, because it isn’t really storytelling. It feels more like a collection of the most professionally shot home movies ever assembled. Having seen the pretty pictures, the viewer leaves with no more than when they began, without even hot sex or a cool song to take as a souvenir. So I guess it’s weird. I’m not sure if it’s a movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This muddled curio doesn’t coalesce into anything, even by its own dreamy, associational terms.”–Tara Brady, The Irish Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Blizard. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CHAPPAQUA (1966)

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DIRECTED BY: Conrad Rooks

FEATURING: Conrad Rooks, Jean-Louis Barrault, William S. Burroughs, Paula Pritchett

PLOT: A wealthy young American travels to Europe to receive treatment for his alcohol and drug addiction, fighting his urges, reflecting on his hedonistic past, and dreaming of more tranquil times.

Still from Chappaqua (1966)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: With a sometimes-poetic, sometimes-pretentious look at the travails of drug addiction and a fervent dedication to nonlinear storytelling, Chappaqua is messy but unusually sure of itself. There’s little doubt that first-time filmmaker Rooks got exactly the movie he wanted, and that movie is a surreal anti-narrative that by turns puzzles, annoys, and astonishes.

COMMENTS: The opening crawl is essentially the hero’s confession: in an effort to combat the alcoholism that began at the age of 14, our protagonist—Russsel Harwick, the alter ego of writer-director Rooks—turned to an impressive number of alternatives, including marijuana, hashish, cocaine, heroin, peyote, psilocybin and LSD. It’s the peyote that offers hope of breaking the cycle of rotating addiction, as a nightmare convinces him he’s hit rock bottom and leads him to seek a cure. Enjoy this moment; it’s the last time in Chappaqua where anyone makes an effort to explain what’s going on.

Chappaqua is Conrad Rooks’ barely disguised autobiographical account of his own struggles with drugs and drink, and he is bracingly frank about the depths to which he fell. He is selfish, rude, prone to breaking rules, and pathetic in pursuit of his next fix. We get to see what it’s like to operate in a drug-induced fog through such tools as an unsteady handheld camera, comical shifts in tone and perspective, and even a shocking black and white posterized vision of Manhattan. As a visualist, Rooks is rich with ideas. On the other hand, Russel is kind of unbearable to be around. (When he tussles with Burroughs in the writer’s cameo as an intake counselor, I half-hoped that Burroughs might pull a page out of his own history and shoot him.)

And yes, it’s that William S. Burroughs. Rooks hung out in New York with a number of future leading lights of the counterculture, and has said that he made Chappaqua after efforts to bring Naked Lunch to the screen fell through. But Burroughs is still a big part of this film even aside from his cameo, as Rooks used the author’s cut-up technique, deliberately editing out of order and throwing scenes in at random places, sometimes overlaid atop other scenes.

How Conrad Rooks came to be in the company of the likes of Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg (a fellow cameo beneficiary, annoying crowds by the Central Park reservoir by chanting and playing a harmonium) is a major component of any discussion of Chappaqua. An Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CHAPPAQUA (1966)

CAPSULE: GERRY (2002)

DIRECTED BY: Gus Van Sant

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: Two young men become lost in a desert, and wander aimlessly in search of a way out.

Still from Gerry (2002)

COMMENTS: The plot synopsis above may seem unhelpfully brief, but there’s the very real possibility that I’ve actually said too much. Describing Gerry is an almost futile task, because very little actually happens, and that’s very much the point. Even before they get lost, the two men motoring down the highway aren’t really doing anything. Their sojourn into the desert is a vague trek to see “the thing,” a goal they dispense with pretty early on. They don’t even speak for the first eight minutes of the film until Damon reminds Affleck to stick to the path, as blunt a piece of foreshadowing as one can imagine.

Gerry is largely a sensory experience. Van Sant and cinematographer Harris Savides capture a some truly spectacular, desolate vistas (a mélange of Death Valley and Argentina), against which Affleck and Damon seem puny and immaterial. Meanwhile, the soundscape of designer Leslie Shatz is cranked up to the maximum, with every trudge and scrape slamming into the red. It’s not just that these two men are lost and doomed. It’s that we’re right there with them.

For a story about people walking blithely into harm’s way, Gerry is unexpectedly entertaining. Affleck and Damon improvised much of their dialogue and they have a casual repartee, best exemplified by a scene where Affleck manages to get stuck atop an enormous boulder and the pair has to figure out a way to get him down. (Affleck also nails the film’s most brutal slice of gallows humor: “How do you think the hike’s going so far?”) They exude a surprising amount of personality for as little as they say, and as little as we know about them. Even their names are a mystery; they might both be called Gerry, but they also use the word as shorthand for making a dumb mistake, so the very title of the film could just be a way of busting their chops.

Van Sant marries this non-story with potent visuals that would be comically overwrought if they didn’t serve the film so well. A perfectly framed closeup of the men slogging through the desert almost resembles a horse race, until you realize each ear-splitting crunch in the dirt is leading them ever closer to nowhere at all. A long, slow dolly around Affleck, capturing his utter dejection is paired with a similar dolly looking outward, taking in the stunning scenery that is doing him in.

Gerry kicks off a sort of unofficial Gus Van Sant trilogy about young death. This film’s death-by-misfortune is followed by Last Days (suicide) and Elephant (murder). Uniting the three films is a sense that that last day of life is not momentous or weighted with significance. The days are just days. And there is beauty and terror in them, just the same.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If you can imagine Dude, Where’s My Car? rewritten by Samuel Beckett, you have some idea of what this intriguing, ferociously austere, but subtly and unlocatably humorous picture feels like… Gerry requires a leap of faith and an investment of attention: but with its fascination and weird exhilaration it handsomely repays both.” Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Motkya, who called it “ a masterpiece of minimalism” and argued “[t]his movie deserves to be in the List, if only for its uncompromising refusal to be a traditional cinematic experience.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)   

329. THE TESTAMENT OF ORPHEUS (1960)

Weirdest!

Le testament d’Orphée, ou ne me demandez pas pourquoi!

“Man seeks to escape himself in myth, and does so by any means at his disposal. Drugs, alcohol, or lies. Unable to withdraw into himself, he disguises himself. Lies and inaccuracy give him a few moments of comfort.”–Jean Cocteau, Diary of an Unknown

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jean Cocteau, , ,

PLOT: Time-traveling poet Jean Cocteau visits a professor and asks to be shot with his faster-than-light bullets in hopes of escaping the condition of timelessness. After the bullet frees him from his 19th century garb, he wanders outside, witnesses a strange gypsy ritual, and unknowingly summons Cégeste, a character from his movie and play Orpheus. Cégeste orders him to travel to the goddess Minerva with an offering, but along the way they are detained and interrogated by Death and her chauffeur Heurtebise (two other characters from Orpheus), among other surreal encounters.

Still from The Testament of Orpheus (1960)

BACKGROUND:

  • Testament is the third part of Jean Cocteau’s “Orphic trilogy,” which begins with The Blood of a Poet (1930) and peaked with its second entry, Orpheus (1950). Since characters from Orpheus play a role in Testament, this film will be much more meaningful to those who saw the second installment. Blood of a Poet has no narrative connection to the others, only a thematic one, and can be viewed in any order.
  • Cocteau was 71 when he made this film, which he intended to be his final statement in cinema. He wrote that the title Testament of Orpheus “has no direct connection to my film. It meant that I was bequeathing this last visual poem to all the young people who have believed in me, despite the total incomprehension with which I am surrounded on the part of my contemporaries.” Cocteau died three years after Testament was released.
  • Reportedly, when the production was short on funds, François Truffaut invested some of his profits from his recent hit The 400 Blows so Cocteau could complete his Testament.
  • The film’s French subtitle (or alternate title), “ne me demandez pas pourquoi,” translates to “do not ask me why.”
  • Besides Cocteau, the cast is uncredited. At the end, Cocteau says that “Any celebrities who you may see along the way appear not because they are famous, but because they fit the roles they play and because they are my friends.” Among the cameo appearances: musician Charles Aznavour, Brigitte Bardot, Yul Brynner, Pablo Picasso, and director . Former Orpheus appears briefly as Oedipus.
  • Edouard Dermithe, who plays the key role of Cégeste, was Cocteau’s adopted son, a fact alluded to in the script.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Cocteau stages his own funeral. His pallbearers are lanky black horse-men. The mourners are gypsies. His corpse exhales smoke. He doesn’t stay dead long.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: The Poet as time-traveling fop; pantomime horse boy toys; Athena’s jet javelin

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In his final film, a giant of the avant-garde unapologetically indulges himself in a surrealistic journey through a misty netherworld bordered by dreams, imagination, and narcissism.

Brief clip from The Testament of Orpheus

COMMENTS: The Testament of Orpheus is, beyond question, a self-indulgent film. “Testament” has a dual meaning: it is a statement of Continue reading 329. THE TESTAMENT OF ORPHEUS (1960)

304. LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961)

L’Année Dernière à Marienbad

Must SeeWeirdest!

“Who knows what true loneliness is, not the conventional word—but the naked terror? To the lonely themselves it wears a mask. The most miserable outcast hugs some memory, or some illusion.”–Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoëff

PLOT: In the confines of the corridors, salons, and gardens of an outlandishly extravagant spa hotel, one man attempts to persuade a female guest that they met a year prior and had planned to run off together. At first she resists his suggestions, but as he repeats his reminiscences, her denial becomes more and more strained. As they flit about the hotel, other guests fade in and out of focus, and the young woman’s male companion looms ever more ominously.

Still from Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

BACKGROUND:

  • Last Year at Marienbad was born of a collaboration between , who had achieved fame for his revolutionary non-narrative novels (dubbed nouveau roman), and Alain Resnais, who had recently completed Hiroshima, Mon Amour. In the opening credits, Robbe-Grillet is billed before Resnais. Afterwards, Robbe-Grillet was inspired to become a (defiantly strange) director himself, eventually notching two Certified Weird films (L’Immortelle and Eden and After) under his own leadership.
  • Cannes had refused to accept the movie as an entry, officially citing the fact that the lead actor was not French, but according to rumor because of Resnais’ public stance against the Algerian War.
  • Winning the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival in 1961 forced the distributors to rethink their strategy of a very limited release.
  • In hopes of recreating a “silent movie” feel for Marienbad, Resnais requested some old-fashioned film stock from Eastman Kodak. Unfortunately, they were unable to provide it.
  • (The Tin Drum) apprenticed on this film as second assistant director.
  • Included in both Harry Medved’s “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (And How They Got That Way) and Steven Shneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.” The movie divided contemporary critics and audiences, as well.
  • The alternately somber and jarring score (performed mostly on solo organ) was written by Francis Seyrig, the lead actress’ brother.
  • Robbe-Grillet was nominated for a “Best Original Screenplay” Oscar (losing to Divorce Italian Style).
  • Selected by 366 Weird Movies readers as one of two winners of our penultimate readers’ choice poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Talk about being spoiled for a choice! Any given scene in Marienbad is a showcase of divinely arranged formalist beauty. What sets the tone (and stands out the most), however, is the alternately freezing and unfreezing of the actors immediately following the play performance that begins the film’s “action” (so to speak). The camera gracefully slinks around the the hotel’s inhabitants as the characters’ action and chatter stop dead, only to start anew a few moments after being silenced.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Living freeze-frames; “I always win”; shadowless trees

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Narratively speaking, Marienbad is about as bare-boned as a film can be without slipping into the realm of incomprehensible. A man and a woman met, or possibly didn’t meet, a year ago, and now the man wants the woman to run away with him. Alain Resnais brings Alain Robbe-Grillet’s dreamy script to geometric life with time fluxes, repetitions, and stylized acting by stylized hotel patrons. The black and white cinematography and challenging edits heighten the sense of shattered narrative that, much like the vicissitudes of human memory, can’t fully coalesce.


Original Trailer for Last Year at Marienbad

COMMENTS: As an art form, film exceeds its competition in manipulation: manipulation of emotions, of perceptions, and of ambiguity. Continue reading 304. LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961)