Tag Archives: Philosophical

366 UNDERGROUND: DENKRAUM (2020)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

Weirdest!

Denkraum is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

DIRECTED BY: Luca Paris

FEATURING: Manuel Melluso, Danilo Paris, Alba Barbullushi, Valerio Mariani, Ilaria Del Greco, Salvatore Di Natale, Giacomo Aversa

PLOT: Alex observes videos on a computer monitor for a new social network named “Denkraum” (which may also be a self-aware entity).

Still from Denraum (2020)

COMMENTS: I think it’s fair to call Denkraum a Surrealist film; although there might be a science fiction or even a mystical solution to its conundrums, any answers are buried under so many abstractions and layers of speculation and contradiction that the search for meaning becomes an exercise in the paranoiac-critical method. Fortunately, we have a director’s statement (appended to the end of this review) to provide some clues to interpretation. Even so, I think most viewers will be completely perplexed by the film’s ambiguities.

As a cinematic experience, the movie proceeds something like this: Alex (whose youthful baldness combined with a baby face make him look simultaneously thuggish and nerdy, a look that seems calculated to invoke Max in Pi) scrolls through videos on an app branded “DENKRAUM.” Every now and then, he clicks play and we “enter” a vignette and watch it play out. These may be real recorded events, memories, or dreams. Most are too dialogue-heavy to make much of an impression; in one of the better ones, four nymphs lead a man into a swimming pool and drown him while a woman in a red dress previously owned by a dead girl watches. Although they all seem to know each other and be part of the same social circle, it’s not easy to keep the characters straight or to construct any sort of narrative connecting them; this is probably intentional. When not watching videos, Alex texts with various characters or AI entities, stares at the portraits he’s hung on his walls, and walks the streets looking grim and intense, with a various color filters suggesting alienation. The screen is constantly invaded by text messages (originally scrambled, they decode before our eyes). Sometimes these come from characters in the videos, sometimes from “Denkraum” itself. They are rarely helpful (“There is a distant and hidden place where nobody listens to your screams and a drunken dancing snake.”). Are they real communications, or simply cybernetic manifestations of the voices inside Alex’s head?

Denkraum is packed full of themes, including a shadowy religious cult, schizophrenia, techno-alienation, postmodern philosophy, misogyny and sexual violence, stalker (but not quite Stalker) vibes, a possible murder or two, pseudo-fascist gangs, indistinct conspiracies, toxic homophobia, and apocalypticism. Even on multiple viewings, the choppy delivery of the ideas makes it almost impossible to form a firm interpretation of the film. Again, I suspect this is intentional: the deluge of information suggests a nightmare version of a Facebook feed, where a political rant is followed by a relationship update status followed by a kitty meme followed by a livestream of college girls making out, while various friends and acquaintances are Continue reading 366 UNDERGROUND: DENKRAUM (2020)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE FIFTH THORACIC VERTEBRA (2022)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Park Syeyoung

FEATURING: Jung Sumin, Haam Seokyoung, Moon Hyein, Jihyeon Park, Seungki Jung, Oh Jeongyeon

PLOT: Mold formed in widely traveled mattress gains awareness and, eventually, a humanoid form.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: “Cinema-verité meets monster movie, wherein grand philosophical questions about the nature of the self and awareness are explored by way of a creepy-tendriled fungus with a hunger for human spine.” I’m hoping that’s sufficient.

COMMENTSThe Fifth Thoracic Vertebra is art-house-mumble-core, showcasing slices of Korean life as a mattress travels from the center of Seoul to the city’s periphery, and even further, up toward North Korea. Slow dialogue, poignant encounters, life and death, aborted love, and… an increasingly sentient mold. This hook in Park Syeyoung’s feature debut allows for the mundane to sidle up to the grandly philosophic, thanks to the collective organism that seeks to learn about its milieu through the consumption of its victims’ fifth thoracic vertebrae.

The director (who is also the screenwriter) has a knack for dialogue, and has devised a method to gather authentic performances from his cast. He remarked in the Fantasia Festival post-screening Q&A that all the male actors were musicians—ones, incidentally, he refused to allow to compose the film score—with no acting ability. By accumulating various takes of their scenes, just like his film’s mold-y protagonist accumulates expansions of itself, he was able to play around with social tonality, grabbing the best of the various performances to graft on to his film as he grew it from the ground up. Without the hyper-realism of the ambient action (or, often the case, inaction), The Fifth… could easily have sputtered to a clunky collapse under the weight of its pretenses.

But it doesn’t. The cognizantial arc of his mold begins slowly; the film even begins some couple of hundred days before its “birth.” Once the mold forms, it seems to breathe. Sound design carries a great deal of weight, as the audience hears the strange crackling, moaning, and creaking-breathing (?) of this odd main character, and there is a sensation of complete acceptance when, at last, its first knobby tendril emerges from the slickened crack in the mattress, reaches toward its victim… and snatches a section of their back-bone. As the days fly by, the mold begins to learn the rudiments of speech, and we eventually reach a poignant scene where a dying woman leaves a letter to her daughter in its charge (its mattress-home having now traveled quite far). The letter is never delivered, but becomes part of the organism’s sentience.

The closing sequence is both touching and quietly monumental. A reviewer pal of mine described The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra as “boring”; and while I must admit to it being a slow and quiet movie, I found it much more of a peaceful, contemplative film—one that organically grew into near-cosmic significance. Immediately upon viewing, it occurred to me that Park Syeyoung’s debut film would be a fitting B-side to ‘s debut; addressing similar themes, albeit from a different bio-organic perspective, the meditative nature of The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra is the perfect come-down from Tetsuo‘s frenzied hyperactivity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Syeyoung Park’s imaginative debut feature blends the body horror of early David Cronenberg with the witty eccentricity of Quentin Dupleux and adds its own flavours of melancholy and wistfulness… {Park]  teases out the bizarre in the everyday and finds beauty in moments of horror. His first feature may be unpolished but it shows a good deal of unsettling originality.”–Allan Hunter, Screen Daily (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: GLORIOUS (2022)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Rebekah McKendry

FEATURING: Ryan Kwanten, J.K. Simmons

PLOT: Wes finds himself unable to leave the company of a mysterious, genial stranger in rest stop bathroom.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Sam Beckett, eat your heart out. Glorious is a two-man show where no philosophy is too heavy and no fate for mankind is too abominable. Never before has such unspeakable horror emerged through a glory hole.

COMMENTS: Rebekah McKendry’s one set comedy leaves me hamstrung in a number of ways. First, it steals the word “glorious” from me. Second, and more important, it’s a movie best seen without any foreknowledge to speak of. But, as the director overcame the challenge of crafting a manic thriller set almost entirely in one dingy, four-walled room, I shall do my best to overcome my challenges of discussing the merits of this Glorious film.

The set-up can (and should) be revealed: Wes’ only traveling companion through the backwoods highways of Nowhere, Middle America is a teddy who utters “I love you bear-y much” at the squeeze of a paw. This cloying recorded-phrase could be enough to drive a man around the bend on its own, but Wes (oh, poor poor Wes) has other things on his mind. Among them, he’s lost his girlfriend, the “one” he had not been anticipating to be the love of his life. Stricken with grief, panic, and fatigue, he pulls off the road into the parking lot of a highway rest stop. While chugging his bottle of definitely-not-Jack Daniels, he blasts his car radio and burns most of his meager possessions—including his slacks. Waking up the next morning, he crashes into the men’s room, vomits copiously, and a kindly voice inquires if he’s feeling better.

It becomes clear later on that this cordial question is one of the few instances a stranger has expressed concern for Wes, and he latches on to it, indulging the eccentric conversationalist in the neighboring stall. This voice belongs to J.K. Simmons, so you know you are in for a treat. Simmons is a natural speaker: someone we can imagine—no, scratch that—someone we’d love to inquire after our health having heard us spent a solid minute puking our guts out. His voice is key to relieving much of the claustrophobic (but never static) anxiety that bubbles up and over as Glorious proceeds. Part historian, part therapist, and all-parts good humored, Simmons’ unnamed character is a perfect foil to Wes’ broken, scumbag beardo. One of the strangest things about the movie is how compelling discourse between two fellows in a rest stop bathroom can be. The other strange thing about this movie is [redacted].

Hmm. I suppose you’ll just have to trust me: you haven’t seen a conversation-core comedy like this once since requested of André Gregory, “Encore, mais avec une puissance cosmique ultime cette fois.”

WHAT THE CRITICS ARE SAYING:

“…one of the more unique movies I have seen come out of the Fantasia Film festival… While it can be a strange sit at times, for fans of cosmic horror, Glorious delivers in odd ways.”–Brendan Frye, CGM Backlot Magazine (fetsival screening)

CAPSULE: ANATOMY OF HELL (2004)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Amira Casar, Rocco Siffredi, voice of Catherine Breillat

PLOT: A woman pays a gay man to observe her intimate moments for four nights.

Still from Anatomy of Hell (2004)

COMMENTS: Sartre said Hell is other people. Catherine Breillat says Hell is other people’s bodies; or, more specifically, other genders’ bodies; or, when you get right down to it, women’s bodies.

A Woman goes to a gay disco and slits her wrists in the bathroom. She’s rescued by a gay Man, who takes her to a clinic to be stitched up. The Woman proposes to pay him to “watch her when she’s unwatchable.” He goes to her house for four nights, pours himself a few fingers of Jack Daniels to help him make it through the night, and they talk while she lies naked and exposed. “They fragility of female flesh inspires disgust or brutality,” he muses. “The veils [men] adorn us with anticipate our shrouds,” the Woman proclaims. (The conversation is not intended to be naturalistic; it’s a staged Platonic dialogue with a poetic overlay). While never verbally expressing anything but disgust for the Woman, the Man is drawn to experiment intimately with her body (including scenes involving garden tools, and worse). Then the arrangement ends. He is moved, and, in what may be a fantasy sequence, commits an act of brutality. That’s it; it’s partially successful conversion therapy.

Siffredi, a pornographic actor best known for his recurring “Buttman” character, turns out to be a surprisingly capable actor—although his moods are restricted to disgust and melancholy, both simmering. Casar is beautiful as she lounges around naked, but her role could be played by almost any beautiful nude actress. Although she shows more range than Siffredi, as any actress might, she has trouble putting across dialogue like “in intercourse, the act isn’t what matters, but its meaning.” Casar’s body double is anatomically correct. Breillat herself dubs the thoughts for both parties.  And that’s it for the acting—which is a problem, in what’s basically a character-driven two-hander (explicit though it is, it’s so anti-erotic that could never make the grade as a one-hander).

On release, Anatomy of Hell received a lot of understandable criticism for its overly-simplistic brand of radical gender philosophy. Taken literally, the film argues (explicitly and didactically, despite the poetic trappings) that men are disgusted by women’s bodies and instinctively long to damage them—and that this misogyny is even more pronounced in gay men. That’s not a position I would want to defend in a Ph.D. thesis. But while that literal reading is both ridiculous and offensive, there is another layer to the film that is hopeful. Despite his disgust at The Woman’s body, The Man is eventually seduced by it. And after the job is done, he finds himself changed by the experience: “I experienced total intimacy with her. And I don’t even know her name.” Radical posturing aside, Anatomy of Hell at least partly celebrates the alchemy of shared human bodies: that point when carnal disgust is overcome and physical commingling becomes a spiritual experience. Look past words to the magic of bodies, this wordy picture whispers. Though mercifully short, Anatomy of Hell is a hard watch, composed of dull, pseudo-profound dialogues broken by shock sequences designed to reinforce its putative thesis that female bodies are disgusting. It’s not recommended, but—if you can bypass the untenable literal reading its characters propose—this erotic experiment is more thought-provoking than its detractors suggest.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“But sometimes [Breillat] is just plain goofy, as in ‘Anatomy of Hell,’ which plays like porn dubbed by bitter deconstructionist theoreticians.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Motyka, who asked for more Breillat reviews and stated that Anatomy of Hell was “especially worth looking at, because of its rejection of a traditional plot.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: SYMBIOSPYCHOTAXIPLASM: TAKE ONE (1968)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: William Greaves

FEATURING: William Greaves, Don Fellows, Patricia Ree Gilbert

PLOT: Director William Greaves hires two actors to perform a short melodramatic dialogue in Central Park, then has another camera crew film his process of directing them, while yet another crew films the second crew.

Still from SYMBIOPSYCHOTAXIPLASM: Take One (1968)

COMMENTS:If you ever wished a movie consisted of all behind-the-scenes footage and no real content, here you go. William Greaves’ conceit is to repeatedly film a one-scene stage test for a feature that he never intended to make. As he guides the actors through their melodramatic line readings, a camera crew films his direction; a second camera crew films the first. They also film anything that happens on set, whether it be a crowd of gawkers, a homeless veteran who wanders out of the woods, or a policeman checking to see if they have permits to film in Central Park. Greaves wears the same distinctive green mesh shirt through the entire shoot, making it appear as if all the action takes place on a single day. Every now and then, the movie switches to split screens to show the crew and actors activities from different angles, and funky jazz (from Miles Davis’ classic “In a Silent Way” album) punctuates the action. If the act of observing a thing changes it, as the physicists say, then what does the act of observing oneself observing oneself do?

All this sounds like it could be unbearably self-conscious art exercise from stoned hippies, but it’s unexpectedly fascinating. It’s the “coup” staged by the crew, who take it upon themselves to film their own spirited private discussions where they wonder what the hell Greaves is up to, and why he seems to be playing at being incompetent, that ignites the film.  In 1968, they’re not a crew of jaded postmodernists: they sincerely discusses questions of reflexivity and artificiality versus reality, and try to find deeper meaning in the lines which they insist are drivel. They aren’t defensively ironic, as the tone would be were such a project made today; they are unafraid of seeming pretentious. This layer of revolt is essential to the film, supplying conflict and texture. And the viewer never knows if Greaves instigated (or even partly scripted) the crew’s spirited bull sessions, or simply lucked out when they took it upon itself to supply what becomes the most interesting part of the film. You wonder if Greaves is pulling some kind of Andy Kaufman-styled cinematic prank.

Shot in 1968, this movie was not exhibited until 1971, but slowly grew its legend through rare festival and museum screenings, gaining a series of influential champions among fellow filmmakers. This movement culminates in Symbiospsychotaxipalsm: Take 2 1/2, a sequel released in 2005 with the backing fans of and , which is included on the Criterion Collection disc. As far from a standalone feature as is possible to imagine, 2 1/2 starts with 30 minutes of unused footage from the first movie featuring two of the actors , then, after some reflections from the director and crew about the project, fast-forwards the story to see what has happened to these characters 35 years later (answer: they are still doing screen tests, and Greaves is still filming everything). The sequel is a worthwhile supplement, but mostly it serves to highlight the lightning-in-a-bottle success of the original. Youth has faded and the magic can only be remembered, not recreated.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a movie-within-a-movie at a time when most of the meta-cinematic action was coming from Andy Warhol and Jean-Luc Godard. But Greaves goes one better. He’s doing Godard doing Cassavetes.”–Wesley Morris, The Boston Globe (2006 revival)

(This movie was nominated for review by Russa03. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: MOBY DOC (2021)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rob Gordon Bralver

FEATURING: Moby,

PLOT: A wandering, essay-style autobiographical documentary by musician Moby, who discusses his career, his alcoholism, and his veganism in a series of sketches that range from comic to philosophical.

Still from Moby Doc (2021)

COMMENTS: “I know we’ve been in a fairly conventional narrative for a while, but now we’re going to go back to being weird,” sings Moby, accompanying himself on banjo, at about the twenty minute mark. We then see him dressed as a Buddhist monk, walking down an L.A. street striking a bowl with a rod while a group in white robes and animal masks follows him. Alternating typical documentary techniques with weirdo tableaux is the method here, but while there is plenty of rambunctious imagination to the sketches, this isn’t quite the “surrealist biographical documentary” it’s pitched as. Moby Doc is not surrealist, although it contains the fleetingly surreal imagery you’d catch in any modern music video. It is, more accurately, a “collagist biographical documentary,” a story that moves logically and chronologically through Moby’s life and career, but proceeds by stitching together scraps of information cast in different styles and textures. Thus, we have Moby monologues, comic psychodramas where miscast New York actors play Moby’s parents, appreciations from David Lynch, career-spanning concert footage, staged therapy sessions, humorous one-way telephone conversations, space shuttle footage, grandiose shots of Moby standing alone atop a majestic mesa, animated bits, a -esque gag where Moby talks to Death, and a tribute to the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” video.

As someone with a casual acquaintance with Moby—a few tracks from “Play,”  downloaded on mp3 a decade after they were recorded, have made it into my rotation, and I knew virtually nothing of the artist behind them—I think this documentary may play better for people like me than for longtime fans. Rabid followers have heard all these stories before (the musician has already published two memoirs), and there’s not much new music here. The quirky presentation, tailored to a cultured rather than a mass audience, means it serves well as an introduction to those of us with a marginal interest in the musician. Well aware that he is aging out of dance floor relevance, Moby seeks to rebrand himself as an elder statesman and Serious Artist: thus, the recent concert footage of orchestral arrangements of his electronica hits.

As candid as Moby is about his hedonistic excesses—the middle section of the film is peppered with unflattering AA-styled confessions, some involving poop—critics point out that parts of his history are whitewashed or ignored (a scandal involving goes unmentioned). Such spin is to be expected in a self-funded vanity project. The bigger issue is how you respond to the narcissist paradox at the film’s core, which may determine how well you like the film (and, by extension, how well you like Moby). He begins the film by announcing he intends to explore nothing less than “the why of everything,” but then, naturally, proceeds to explore nothing more than the why of Moby. He realizes that he is addicted to fame, confessing how bad reviews and “kill yourself” troll comments wound him, and reveals that he aggrandizes his image in order to compensate for feelings of inadequacy. He wants to share universal wisdom—much of it genuine—-with the viewer, but he has enough self-awareness to realize that this mission will inevitably make him look pompous. He compensates with little self-deprecating jokes: when he talks about his music as a form of self-healing, he cuts to a reaction shot of his fake therapist stifling a yawn.

So Moby Doc ultimately becomes a lavish, 90-minute, million dollar humble brag. This could understandably rub some people the wrong way. But I relate to Moby’s dilemma: everyone has something to teach others, everyone has valuable life-lessons to share, but how can we do this without looking presumptuous and egotistical? Comic irony is the go-to strategy, and Moby deploys it as well as he can. So instead of being a recitation of rock-n-roll clichés about an artist seduced by fame, money, and pleasures of the flesh who goes through some shit and comes out the other end rededicated to his Art, Moby Doc is an obfuscational comedy: Pink Floyd the Wall with a sense of humor. And that’s not a bad thing; it’s probably as much profundity as a man who’s lifelong passion is to make music for teenagers to shake their asses to can hope to produce.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a self-portrait, an acid flashback, a therapy session, a rumination, and a surrealist music-video package all rolled into one.”–Owen Gleiberman, Variety (contemporaneous)

14*. THE BABY OF MÂCON (1993)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

RecommendedBeware

DIRECTED BY: Peter Greenaway

FEATURING: Julia Ormond, Ralph Fiennes, Philip Stone, Jonathan Lacey, Frank Egerton

PLOT: A passion-play performed in 17th-century Florence tells the story of a child born to a geriatric woman. The old woman’s daughter claims to be the child’s virgin mother and makes brisk business selling the “miraculous” infant’s blessings, while the local bishop’s son suspiciously observes her. Meanwhile, the local nobles in the audience interact with the onstage proceedings.

BACKGROUND:

  • The film was partially inspired by an uproar surrounding an advertising campaign that featured a newborn baby still attached to its umbilical cord. Greenaway was perplexed by the public’s reaction, and set out to create an unflinching depiction of the actual evils of murder and rape.
  • The Catholic Church revoked permission for the film crew to shoot in the Cologne Cathedral after Greenaway’s previous film, The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, & her Lover, aired on German television two days before shooting was to begin.
  • The Baby of Mâcon premiered at Cannes, but was seldom seen after that. Although it booked some dates in Europe, no North American distributor would agree to take on the film due to its subject matter. To this day it has still not been released on physical media in Region 1/A, although it finally became available for streaming in the 2020s.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It is a perennial challenge to choose one image from a Greenaway picture; he regards film as a visual medium, not a tool to adapt literature. The shot of the bored young aristocrat, Cosimo de Medici, knocking over the two-hundred-and-eighth pin, signifying the end to the erstwhile virgin’s gang-rape, best merges Greenaway’s sense of mise-en-scène, his disgust for authority, and his undercurrent of odd humor.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Body secretion auction; death by gang-rape

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Fusing the most ornate costumes this side of the Baroque era with organized religion at its worst, The Baby of Mâcon is a lushly beautiful, sickening indictment of a fistful of humanity’s evils. Stylized stage performances integrate increasingly seamlessly with the side-chatter of (comparatively) modern viewers’ commentary who concurrently desire to take part in the make-believe. Greenaway moves his actors and their audience around each other with an expertise matched only by the growing moral horror developing onscreen.


Short clip from The Baby of Mâcon

COMMENTS: As the audience for The Baby of Mâcon, we bear witness to its iniquities. As witnesses, we bear responsibility: responsibility for the fraudulence of the baby’s aunt when she alleges she’s Continue reading 14*. THE BABY OF MÂCON (1993)