Tag Archives: Paganism

CAPSULE: THE WICKER MAN (2006)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Kate Beahan, , Frances Conroy

PLOT: Responding to a letter from his ex-girlfriend, Officer Edward Malus decides to recuperate from a harrowing traffic accident by investigating a missing person on an island inhabited by a cult of nature-worshiping women.

Still from The Wicker Man (20016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The weirdest thing about this movie is somehow this island of goddess-obsessed females didn’t all get seduced by mid-’00s Cage’s snarky charm. Seriously, though, the actual weirdest thing I came across was that the “Director’s Cut” was presented in full-frame on the DVD, with the PG-13 theatrical release in wide-screen on the reverse side.

COMMENTS: When under the direction of talented filmmakers, Nicolas Cage nothing short of amazing. And as for his many bad movies, I’ve never been unhappy to see him on the screen whenever he appears. So, Neil LaBute’s the Wicker Man does not deserve the lowly “3.7” score to be found on IMDb; it merits at least a solid 5. Nicolas Cage provides a competent performance in a competent PG-13 atmospheric horror film remake. That said, to come anywhere close to succeeding with a reimagining of one of the great scary movies starring some of Britain’s best actors from the ’70s, “competent” is far, far away from “worth-while”.

The story, for the few who may not know it, concerns the mercy mission of California cop Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage, in one of his many roles as a member of law enforcement). While taking some wellness leave after being injured during a dramatic (and recurring) car and truck crash, he receives a letter from ex-girlfriend Willow (Kate Beahan), requesting that he help her find her daughter, who has gone missing on Willow’s hometown island off the Pacific Northwest coast. This island is populated almost entirely by women, all of whom are members of a mother-goddess cult. As Malus’ investigation continues, their ominous harvest festival approaches.

I apologize for not having much to say about this movie, but there really isn’t much to go over. Technically, it’s put together competently ($40-million can get you that kind of quality control); the acting across the board is competent; and… then what? I volunteered to watch this having somehow spent my years between 2006 and now without having seen the movie that brought to the internet the famed “Not the bees!” meme. Indeed, I very nearly missed out on that singular treat for reasons alluded to in the “Why it won’t make the list” section. While a newer release probably would have served me better, the original DVD pressing had the director’s (read: “Not the bees!”) cut in full-frame presentation, something I avoid unless the film was intentionally made in the Academy ratio. I was quite perplexed when I finished the wide-screen version on my first go-around, having spent much of it idly taking random notes to kill time until the infamous bee scene; in the end I had to flip the disc and re-watch the finale, in full-frame. That was the most interesting part of my viewing experience. Now far bee it from me to sound so dismissive, but even though I could drone on some more if I felt like it, instead I’ll leave it that the Wicker Man rather fully lives “up” to the buzz.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Whenever we think our man Cage is totally sucking, it’s probably that he’s just so far ahead of the curve we’re afraid to follow lest we get hit by a truck careening around the bend. Not unlike the character he plays in the BAD LIEUTENANT 2, Cage’s cop in WICKER doesn’t care if we root for him or not, he’s got his own road to ho, an arc that transcends words like ‘reckless’, ‘brave’, ‘idiotic’ or ‘inspired.’–Erich Kuersten, Acidemic

356. NOVEMBER (2017)

“They’re the sort of old legends that are made up just to find a simple reason for every complicated thing. No one wants to admit that they’re foolish. The Frog of the North appeared in the sky from who knows where, and he disappeared again who knows where. But people couldn’t be content with that! Humans can’t stand things that are outside their reach.”–Andrus Kiviräh, “The Man Who Spoke Snakish”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rainer Sarnet

FEATURING: Rea Lest, Jörgen Liik

PLOT: Estonian peasant Liina, who may be able to transform into a wolf, is in love with fellow villager Hans, who returns her affection until he catches a glimpse of the daughter of the German baron who now rules their territory and is immediately smitten. Liina appeals to a witch to cast a spell to turn Hans’ heart to her. Hans, in turn, makes a deal with the Devil to build a kratt he believes will help him reach his beloved.

BACKGROUND:

  • November is based on the Estonian novel “Rehepapp: ehk November” by Andrus Kiviräh, which was a massive success in its homeland. “Rehepapp” has not been translated into English, although Kiviräh’s second novel, “The Man Who Spoke Snakish,” which treats fading pagan beliefs in a similar fashion, has been.
  • The producers raised money through crowdfunding to produce a model of a kratt, then used the test footage to secure money for the film from Polish and Dutch sources.
  • Most of the minor villager roles are played by nonprofessional actors.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Our first look at a kratt: it’s a cow skull tied to three sticks, with sharp farm implements tied to them, which cartwheels across the lawn of an 19th century villa on its way to break down a stable door.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Kratt airlifting cow; the chicken dead; two-ass plague gambit

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Set in a world where our forefathers’ craziest superstitions are literally true, November weaves a Gothic tapestry of sleepwalking noblewomen, hags, bewitched friars, and dead ancestors who sometimes manifest as chickens. And, of course, kratts that turn into primitive helicopters. You could not have seen that one coming.


U.S. trailer for November

COMMENTS: November is, at least superficially, like the Estonian Continue reading 356. NOVEMBER (2017)

CAPSULE: THE BOOK OF BIRDIE (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Elizabeth E. Schuch

FEATURING: Ilirida Memedovski, Kitty Fenn, Suzan Crowley, Kathryn Browning

PLOT: A young woman is brought to a convent to protect her from an unspecified danger. There, she explores both her emerging spirituality and womanhood.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Schuch’s movie relies heavily on a theological flavor of “magic realism”. While it explores various fringe topics—(clerical) sisterhood, puberty, paganism, and suicide—using a variety of stylish techniques, it doesn’t push boundaries as far as it should, and ultimately doesn’t adequately explore the various narrative avenues it goes down.

COMMENTS: Director Elizabeth Shuch cannot be accused of lacking in ideas. With her directorial debut, she touches on many. So many that I feel compelled to type (some of) them out, bullet-style:

  • The intersection between Femininity and Christianity.
  • The intersection between Christianity and Paganism.
  • The intersection between Paganism and Femininity.
  • Coming of age, first love, and suicide.

Throughout The Book of Birdie, Shuch touches on all these topics while maintaining a precarious narrative thread.

Our story begins in a dying convent consisting of a dozen or so nuns. Young Birdie (Ilirida Memedovski) has been brought there for the protection and (ostensible) comfort that a life of wholesome religiosity may bring. Birdie integrates with her new wards slowly, but surely, while also making acquaintance (then friendship, then love) with Julia, the daughter of the convent’s groundskeeper. Birdie learns prayers, attends services, and sees the ghosts of two dead nuns haunting the convent. After staining her bedding with a heavy menstrual flow, things become slightly more unreal.

Arthouse film techniques abound. There are long shots of Birdie’s entrancingly dark eyes. Ephemeral lighting illuminates the inside of the compound while the bleak sun saturates the outdoors. Stylized animations of symbolic imagery are seamlessly integrated. While the camera-work and editing flirt along the edge of heavy-handedness, they never fall into parody. The nun characters—both alive and dead—help to keep the film grounded in the reality of this hollowed-out haven. One enthusiastic nun in particular stands out. She confides her aspirations to Birdie: “I knew Jesus was the only man for me when I had my First Communion. I felt the wafer sizzle in my mouth and I felt him calling to me. Everything I’ve done since then has been to prepare me for a spiritual life. I want to be the best.” Unfortunately, it is Birdie who experiences the transcendence that this nun strives for—without even trying. The cause (effect?) of this transcendence brings me to a needful observation.

This film has a lot of blood in it. A lot of menstrual blood. It shows up in specks around the chapel, it shows up in trails, and it shows up in the small vials that Birdie fills with it and on occasion drinks from. She also crafts what I can only describe as a “fetus fetish” from porridge and stores it in vinegar. This entity comes to life on occasion, as does a statue of Christ—as do her reproductive organs, which we see escaping her body and flying off, like an angel. There is a mountain of symbolism of which, with my limited catechism, I can only understand fleeting hints.

The important question , though, is whether this works as a movie. To that I say, “Yes… mostly.” The performances are all tip-top and the limited scenery provides a real sense of a derelict, isolated haven. And, I suppose, the narrative moves from one point to the next, with a beginning, middle, and end. However, I can’t help but feel that this movie is like an empty Chinese puzzle box. Fascinating to watch unfold, but ultimately yielding nothing. An ambiguously tragic life is explored with ambiguously theological symbols to bring us to an ambiguous, but tragic, ending. All spirit and no flesh, perhaps?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weird, glittery, feminine fever dream.”–Lindsay Pugh, Woman in Revolt (festival screening)

110. FELLINI SATYRICON (1969)

AKA Satyricon; The Degenerates

“…to eliminate the borderline between dream and imagination; to invent everything and then to objectify the fantasy; to get some distance from it in order to explore it as something all of a piece and unknowable.”–Federico Fellini on his motives for adapting Petronius’ Satyricon

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Martin Potter, Max Born, Hiram Keller, Mario Romagnoli

PLOT: Two students, Encolpio and Ascilto, argue over their dual ownership of the handsome slave boy Giton, whom Encolpio loves and Ascilto has sold. Encolpio seeks Giton through a series of adventures that take him across the ancient Roman world, encountering a pompous actor, a wealthy merchant who holds nightly orgies and fancies himself a poet, unscrupulous slavers, and other long dead satirical targets. Eventually Encolpio becomes involved in a plot to kidnap an albino hermaphrodite demigod, is cursed with impotence, and seeks the services of a witch.

Still from Fellini Satyricon (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • Petronius wrote the rambling, erotic, and highly literary “Satyricon” during the reign of Emperor Nero, 1st Century A.D. It is sometimes considered the world’s oldest surviving novel.
  • The original Roman satire survives only in fragments, which explains the often incoherent nature of the story in Fellini’s movie. Fellini invented a few small details (and one major one, in the hermaphrodite character who replaces the penis-god Priapus’ role in the story) to bridge gaps or help the story flow in the direction he wanted to. The director refers to the fragmentary nature of the source narrative by allowing the story to jump forward in time, and even ends a scene in mid-sentence (as Petronius’ surviving work ends in the middle of a sentence).
  • Fellini’s name appears in the title not out of vanity, but to distinguish the movie from a competing adaptation directed by Gian Luigi Polidoro which was also released in 1969. Polidoro registered the title Satyricon first. United Artists purchased the international distribution rights to both films and sat on Polidoro’s movie while they promoted Fellini’s more marketable name.
  • Fellini used international actors for the main parts (joking that he did so because there were no Italian homosexuals). The director saw that dubbing into Italian was deliberately made slightly out of sync with the actors’ lip movements to create an additional feeling of strangeness.
  •  was offered the small but important role of Trimalchio, but was too ill to accept it (Karloff died in February of 1969).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Picking a single image to represent Satyricon is like trying to single out one scene that captures the essence of a sprawling carnival. The film is a nonstop parade of extreme imagery, grotesque tableaux and freakish costuming.  No one scene sticks out as more bizarre than another, and nothing is supposed to; everything inside  the borders of the known world of Satyricon is as weird as everything else, from the whorehouse at the center of the empire to the blank spot at the edge of the map where monsters be. Forced to select something, we went with the image appearing five minutes into the film of the actor Vernaccio, dressed in a porcine pink helmet with a fin on top, carefully placing a tiny pill-like object on his outstretched tongue. It’s Fellini’s signal to the Summer of Love crowd that the movie is dosing itself right now—strap yourselves in for the trip to come.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Fellini seizes upon the fragmentary nature of his classical source material as an excuse to fly off on flights of phantasmagorical fancy; he sets his camera to observe these imaginary denizens of gluttonous old Rome as if they were alien lifeforms. Satyricon is the work of a master filmmaker at his most self-indulgent—but when tremendous talent
indulges itself, the results are typically spectacular.


John Landis on the trailer for Fellini Satyricon

COMMENTS: The surviving text of the Satyricon begins with randy bisexual student Encolpio in Continue reading 110. FELLINI SATYRICON (1969)

102. LUCIFER RISING (1981)

“The montage of hermetic symbols becomes first dreamlike, then menacing; centuries of mystical thought are distilled into a series of voyeuristic fantasies, a kinky psychodrama backed by the carnival strains of a maleficent calliope.  Anger intended Lucifer Rising to stand as a form of ritual marking the death of the old religions like Judaism and Christianity, and the ascension of the more nihilistic age of Lucifer.”–Mikita Brottman in “Moonchild: The Films of Kenneth Anger

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Myriam Gibril, , Marianne Faithfull, Leslie Huggins,

PLOT: Lava erupts and the goddess Isis awakens, calling to her husband Osiris. In a room far away a man wakes up, sits on a throne in his apartment and somehow spears a woman in a forest far away, then climbs into a bathtub to wash off the blood. Later, the moon awakens the goddess Lilith, a magick ritual summons Lucifer, and flying saucers appear over Luxor, Egypt.

Still from Lucifer Rising (1981)

BACKGROUND:

  • Anger originally shot a film called Lucifer Rising (A Love Vision) in 1966, which starred Bobby Beausoleil as Lucifer.  Anger claimed that Beausoleil stole most of the completed footage and hid it; the star contended that Anger merely ran out of money to complete the movie.  Anger then took out an obituary-style ad in The Village Voice announcing his retirement from filmmaking.  Whatever the case, Anger incorporated some of the surviving footage from the original Lucifer into Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969).
  • Anger began working on the project again in 1970 and completed the first cut of Lucifer Rising in 1973, with a score by Jimmy Page.  After a falling out with Page he had the movie re-scored by Bobby Beausoleil.
  • Beausoleil was a Haight-Ashbury musician who came under Anger’s influence during the Summer of Love.  After his falling out with Anger the musician joined Charles Manson’s “Family.” He murdered music teacher Gary Hinman in 1969 over a drug deal gone wrong, and was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.  Anger contacted him to create the music for Lucifer Rising, and he wrote and recorded the score from prison.  The band heard on the soundtrack is comprised of his fellow inmates.
  • Lucifer Rising was completed with funds from the National Film Finance Corporation of Great Britain, prompting some controversy about state funding of a “devil film.”  Anger also received financial assistance from the Germany’s Hamburg Television and the U.S.’s National Endowment for the Arts.
  • Anger did not complete the editing on the final cut until 1981, a decade after work was begun.
  • In one of the film’s final scenes there is a long shot of the Colossi of Memnon in Upper Egypt. If you look hard you can see a puff of smoke rising in the distant background. According to Anger, this came from him ceremonially burning the film’s script because the work was now complete.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The orange UFO flying over the crumbling columns of the Temple of Luxor, then peeking over the shoulder of the colossal ancient statue of Ramses II.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Egyptian gods and goddesses frolicking through a magickal psychedelic landscape, summoning Lucifer and flying saucers.


Trailer for “The Films of Kenneth Anger, Vol. 2 (including clips and music from Lucifer Rising)

COMMENTS:  A shaggy-haired man in a robe of many colors caresses a stone column. A Continue reading 102. LUCIFER RISING (1981)

LIST CANDIDATE: VALHALLA RISING (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Nicolas Winding Refn

FEATURING: , Maarten Stevenson

PLOT: A mute, one-eyed slave escapes from his Viking captors and joins a group of Christians sailing to the Holy Land to join the Crusades.

Still from Valhalla Rising (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  After a leisurely beginning that gets by on atmosphere, Valhalla rises to some low-budget, low-key weirdness in its third act.  But although the movie’s wonderfully shot and recorded and full of ominous portent, the thick symbolism is so open-ended that it becomes empty, leaving little to no impact in the end.

COMMENTS:  With Valhalla Rising, Nicolas Winding Refn appears to be trying to answer the question “what happens when you make a religious allegory, but leave out the allegory part?”  After triumphing with Bronson, a heavily-stylized, slightly weird movie built around a larger than life testosterone tanker, Refn turns to minimalistic cinematics to mysticize another masculine archetype.  Valhalla Rising arrives as a weirder, but weaker, outing, because the mute tattooed warrior slave One Eye is not as sharply drawn as Charlie Bronson.  It was clear what Bronson wanted—to become the most notorious prisoner in Britain, no matter how many beatings he had to take and how many hours he had to spend in solitary to get the title—and his mad obsession drove the film.  One Eye remains a mystery throughout; after escaping from captivity in the first act, he has no agenda for the rest of the film, but drifts from continent to continent with the tide.  He has blood-soaked visions of the future and builds a cairn; because he has nothing better to do with his time, he hooks up with a band of Christian crusaders heading for the Holy Land.  These people, at least, have motivations—after their ship gets lost in the doldrums and drifts to a land covered in unspoiled primeval forest, their leader decides to establish a New Jerusalem and convert the savages.  This development leads Refn into to a mini-tribute to Herzog‘s Aguirre, The Wrath of God, as the Crusaders travel downriver while being picked off by unseen savages firing arrows from the shore.   But the focus remains on the inscrutable One Eye, who travels with the suspicious Christians (who admire and fear him for his martial abilities), but he remains unreachable and aloof.  He strikes with deadly force when they threaten the closest thing he has to a friend, the boy Are; in later reels, he chops some of them up for no clearly explained reason.  At the end of the movie One Eye turns into an improbable Christ figure, and presumably shuffles off to Valhalla.  Portraying the scarred slave, who between bloodlettings spends most of the movie staring at distant horizons with an unreadable expression, as an ambiguous figure apart from humanity is a deliberate choice; but making the main character a mute cipher with no overriding motivation is a gamble.  With no narrative drive, the story often lags, symbolized by a long section where the crew dehydrates and lies about listlessly on the ship’s deck when the expedition is trapped inside misty doldrums on the Atlantic Ocean.  Fortunately, Refn creates a tremendous atmosphere of foreboding beauty, full of images of weary, weathered men framed against verdant mountains and a keening soundtrack, to carry us through when the story limps along.  The mood combines Sergio Leone’s sparse machismo with Andrei Tarkovsky‘s quiet mysticism, and if the story fails to draw us in, at least the scenery is spectacular.

The Norse deity Odin, chief of the Gods and lord of Valhalla, the afterlife’s feast hall for warriors, is often known as “the Wanderer.”  He legendarily tore out his own eye in order to gain the wisdom of the gods.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Mr. Refn, who can pull off stylish brutality (in the ‘Pusher’ films and ‘Bronson’), shows no knack for the kind of visionary, hallucinatory image making that would render ‘Valhalla Rising’ memorable.”–Mike Hale, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE SECRET OF KELLS (2009)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey

FEATURING: Voices of Evan McGuire, Christen Mooney, Brendan Gleeson, Mick Lally

PLOT: In Ireland in the Dark Ages, Brendan chafes under the rule of his stern uncle, an

Still from The Secret of Kells (2009)

abbot obsessed with building a wall around the monastery to repel Viking invaders; the boy’s apprenticeship into the art of creating illuminated manuscripts gives him the courage to leave the safety of the village and enter the faerie-haunted forest that surrounds it.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s original, artistically superior and nearly dreamlike, but it lacks that defiant sense of “otherness” needed to carry it from the realm of the offbeat to the truly weird.

COMMENTS:  If Walt Disney hired a group of 9th century Irish monks to oversee the work of the animators who created Fantasia, the completed project might look something like The Secret of Kells.  (In fact, the animators weren’t Disney veterans, but some of the same folks who pulled off The Triplets of Belleville).  Both the story and the animation style of Secret were inspired by the historical Book of Kells, one of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts in the history of Christendom.  Just as in the movie, books like Kells kept the light of knowledge and civilization burning during the Dark Ages, and invading barbarian hordes intent on plunder did threaten to quench that flame. (The movie is impeccably researched and filled with sly little details: even the white cat Pangur Bán is a historical figure).  Brendan’s quest to preserve and complete the Book places his story in an epic context, and it raises interesting implications about the way pagan and Christian beliefs melded to form a common culture, but the real tale here is the mythological Hero’s Journey, as Joseph Campbell defined it: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”  Brendan, the novice, ventures from the walls of the monastery into the mystical forest, where he encounters the faerie spirit Aisling: he defeats the sleeping pagan god Crom Cruach, symbolically becomes a man, and returns to Kells as the conquering hero who completes the Book and keeps civilization alive.  (Curiously, Christianity is never explicitly mentioned in the script; presumably, the omission is an attempt to universalize the tale).  The simple and familiar structure is a brilliant choice to tell this story, because it allows you to settle in and let the amazing imagery float through your eye and into your mind.  The color scheme is jewel-like, like the eye-popping miracle inks the monks go to great lengths to acquire for the Book.  Like the illustrations on the margins of an illuminated manuscript, elaborate curlicue motifs and baroque Celtic knots appears everywhere in the film—look for them drifting about in fog, falling in snowflakes, or hidden in the foliage of the forest.  Sometimes the edges of the frame will be decorated with these figures, like the margins in the real Book of Kells: but here, they acquire another dimension, swirling and dancing about, sometimes invading the frame like spinning Celtic amoebae.  The human figures, in contrast, are abstract, stylized and geometric. Abbot Cellach’s stature in the community is revealed in his freakish height; the bodies of the wolves are assembled out of sharp toothy triangles; the Vikings are brute cinderblock shadows with horns.  The styles merge to create a unique, otherworldly visual experience that simultaneously recalls the artwork of medieval monks and classic storybooks. The synthesis is like nothing you’ve ever seen before.  It’s a picture-perfect, visionary universe in which to set a tale trumpeting art and imagination as the essence of civilization, the only power strong enough to defeat the forces of darkness and barbarism.

No one denies the films visual authority; the sole criticisms revolve around the supposition that it’s light on plot.  I’m not so sure: the movie encompasses the story of a young boy who becomes a man and an artist, and it has fox-spirits, ancient pagan gods, mystical forests, spells, historical allegories, a flawed authority figure, moral dilemmas, Viking assaults… really, all its missing is a wisecracking anthropomorphic sidekick and a chase scene.  And I don’t miss those.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“On the visual level, the film is on a higher plane… The climactic sequence in which the Vikings finally attack might scare small fry if it weren’t so surreally, almost mathematically beautiful.”–Ty Burr, The Boston Globe (contemporaneous)