Tag Archives: Philosophical

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS (2020)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, , , Guy Boyd

PLOT: A young woman goes on a trip to meet her new boyfriend’s parents at their farmhouse on a night when a blizzard is brewing; the night grows increasingly strange and unsettling as it becomes unclear what is real and what is imaginary.

Still from I'm Thinking of Ending Things
I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Guy Boyd as Janitor in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Cr. Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX © 2020

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: By the time the pig shows up at Jake’s old high school, it becomes apparent that this maze of awkward interactions, faulty memories, and uncertain identities may just be Charlie Kaufman’s most surreal film.

COMMENTS: The first inkling that something is not quite right in I’m Thinking of Ending Things comes when the young woman (who is first introduced as “Lucy,” although it turns out that may not be her real name) thinks to herself, “I’m thinking of ending things.” “Huh?,” says Jake (that is his real name), from the driver’s seat. Can he hear her thoughts? She denies speaking. “Weird,” says Jake. “Yeah,” she answers.

Things will get weirder. She’s unsure why she wants to break up with him. Her backstory doesn’t add up. And she’s getting a lot of phone calls, which she’s not answering. When they arrive to meet Jake’s parents at their remote farmhouse, things get even stranger. As it turns out, Jake’s parents would creep out Henry Spencer‘s in-laws. Dinner is uncomfortable, full of small talk that often sounds like hidden accusations, and—once more—competing backstories that contradict each other. Jake’s parents age, almost before her eyes… Nothing explicitly supernatural or menacing happens, but the creaky farmhouse emanates a horror movie vibe, intensified by Jake’s passive-aggressive insistence that his girlfriend stay out of the basement. Meanwhile, Lucy—or whatever her name is—anxiously suggests that Jake take her home before the coming blizzard snows them in and traps her there.

Charlie Kaufman‘s latest mind-massager is another intensely subjective and literate tour of the lonely corridors of the mind, where nothing is as it seems. It’s one of his strangest offerings— particularly when it reaches an irrational finale that departs from the source novel—but perhaps what distinguishes it the most is the exceptional ensemble acting, best seen in the four-way sparring at the dinner table. Their expressions are priceless: Collette smiling to herself at private jokes only she can hear, Thewlis aggressively incredulous at the idea that a landscape could appear sad, Plemmons understandably embarrassed by his parent’s odd behavior, and trying to coax his girlfriend into revealing the correct details about how they met. We expect accomplished performances from those three celebrated actors, but relative newcomer Jessie Buckley is a revelation. She mutates throughout the film, portraying everything from a nervous recalcitrant girlfriend to an angry feminist to an apparent victim of very early-onset Alzheimer’s. She even slips into a Pauline Kael impression. Remarkable.

As with all the best trips, it’s the journey that’s most memorable, not the destination. There is a reveal at the end, but the twist, while satisfying, is hardly the point. Each scene is structured as an individually confounding moment: on the long ride there and back, Jake and his girlfriend discuss everything from the human experience of time, bad movies as viruses, with citations to Wordsworth, David Foster Wallace, Guy Debord, and musical theater (familiarity with “Oklahoma!” will enrich your experience). Jake says he like road trips because “it’s good to remind yourself that the world’s larger than the inside of your own head”—but does the movie believe this thesis? As they travel, the couple learn less about each other, and more about the slipperiness of human memory, fantasy, and identity.  It’s Kaufman’s favorite theme: the loneliness of our inherent interiority. The paradox is that our inescapable subjectivity is the one thing we all share and bond over.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If that sounds confusing, or even downright hostile to the audience, well, that describes the Charlie Kaufman experience… There’s a weird thrill to getting lost inside this movie, only so you can study every odd detail from new angles, over and over again.”–David Sims, The Atlantic (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: “THE MIDNIGHT GOSPEL” (2020)

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Recommended

CREATED BY: Pendleton Ward, Duncan Trussell

FEATURING: Voices of Duncan Trussell, Phil Hendrie, various guests

PLOT: Clancy lives by a run-down farm in a run-down house and uses a run-down multiverse simulator to find interviewees for his spacecast.

Still from The Midnight Gospel, Season 1, Ep. 1

COMMENTS: One of the first things you’ll notice when beginning Netflix’s new series The Midnight Gospel is that it is not of this Earth, at least not of a specific time and place. The landscapes, décor, and props evoke everything from ’50s sci-fi novels to hippie chic to ’90s CD-ROM games, with a color scheme that blasts through it all with as much brightness you can get away with while still being easy on the eyes. One of the second things you’ll notice is that the show’s host—and co-creator—has the voice of a “woke”-but-laid-back1 early 20-something hipster; this voice is, apparently, provided by a forty-six year old comedian. And that, dear reader, is the full extent of my research for this show.

The main focus of each episode is the conversation between Clancy Gilroy (Duncan Trussell) and his special guest for that adventure, but I’d like to talk first about The Midnight Gospel’s visual appeal. The drawings have a meditative quality. The line work is all soft; even the corners feel soft. While it never quite spills over into “organic”, the movement of characters (and despite this television show’s origins, there’s plenty going on on-screen) is somewhere between easy-going and fatalistic. I bring up that word, “fatalistic”, because more likely than not, Clancy and his guests will suffer through some sort of massacre or dismemberment (for example, the calm conversational tones of Dr. Drew Kinsky as the “little president” of an Earth doomed by a zombie apocalypse contrasts amusingly with the nonstop violence in the background; soft-looking violence, of course). Whether being gored by undead hordes, or traveling through a meat processing plant as the meat being processed, there’s a happy squish for the eye to go along with the philosophical/sociological discussion dominating the dialogue.

When you boil it down, The Midnight Gospel is a podcast between a somewhat enlightened, somewhat leftist fellow (I almost wrote “young man” from remembering his voice, but no: he’s forty-six) as he speaks with all manner of intellectuals about drugs, life, death, and so on. That isn’t to say that there’s a strong demarcation between the conversation and the visuals. During a discussion of drugs, “little president” is busy defending the White House against invading zombies. At the meat processing plant, a different guest has his eye removed and consumed by one of that world’s clown children, exclaiming, “That kid just took my fucking eye!”

If you aren’t interested in informed-but-meandering discussions, you will find this cartoon rather trying. If, however, you are looking for a little consciousness-expanding conversation paired with some casually-extreme outlandish visual back-drops, then you are in for a treat. I have already admitted that I’ve done virtually no background research for this; I’ll admit now that I’m only two episodes in—but that’s because I couldn’t wait to write this. I’ll be heading back to Netflix to view the rest right now…

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“These eight hallucinogenic explorations into life, love, death, and everything in between are unlike anything else on television. I promise you. One part podcast, one part Daliesque fantasy, this is a series that’s looking to rewire your brain and expand your mind.”–Umapagan Ampikaipakan, Goggler (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: REVOLVER (2005)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Vincent Pastore

PLOT: Jake Green is released from prison and sets out to settle scores with the crime boss responsible for his sentence; two mysterious loan sharks who seem to know the future offer to help him, but Jake senses he’s being conned.

Still from Revolver (2005)

COMMENTS: Quite naturally, there are lots of guns and gunplay in Guy Ritchie’s Revolver, but there’s no pistol playing a featured role. The title might instead refer to the way the plot spins your head around. Personally, I suspect Ritchie chose Revolver to draw a comparison to the Beatles album of the same name. Prompted by newfound mystical awakening (via psychoanalysis, rather than the Hinduism that affected the Fab Four), he’s announcing his intention to turn to  serious and experimental work after having mastered a simpler form. If so, savage critical notices and flaccid box office returns quickly prompted Ritchie to return to conventional narratives, making Revolver the curiosity in his oeuvre rather than the departure point.

For fans of snappy, stylish gangster films hoping for another Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch, Revolver begins promisingly enough. Haggard-but-handsome Jake Green (Statham) is released from captivity in an atmospheric downpour, which causes oily-but-elegant Macha (Liotta, very good here) a twinge of concern when he hears the news on a limo ride. Armed with conman wisdom he garnered from two cellmates in the slammer, Green sidles into Macha’s casino with long-game revenge on his mind. When the story pulls back, a twisted underworld comes into view: Macha strikes a dangerous deal with unseen kingpin “Mr. Gold,” while two loan sharks save Green’s life from assassins and put him to work for them, on their terms. They’re hatching a plan that involves some Yojimbo-style sabotage of Macha’s drug deal with a Chinese gang, and everything seems primed for a nice twisty thriller.

But don’t get too invested in that plot. Hints of something metaphysical keep screwing with the audience: precognitive warnings on business cards, twelve dollar bills, and the fact that the action inexplicably becomes partly animated during one caper. These bits set up one hell of an ambitious twist; but the problem with it is, it makes all of the preceding events arbitrary and meaningless. Really, there’s not even a point to Jake Green being a gangster; Ritchie could have written him as a politician, a car salesman… or even a film director. The misdirection here goes so far afield it feels like cheating—an especially distressing development because the film is presented and structured as a game. The effect is not like being surprised by an opponent’s intricately plotted chess move, but like learning that your opponent was playing a different game all along, and that all the moves you both made were completely irrelevant. You see, the movie’s all symbolic and deep; but Ritchie manages to fumble the reveal so that it’s somehow simultaneously confusing and obvious. Allegories work best when they play fair in their own narrative worlds; they usually falter when they go out of their way to announce themselves (Ritchie even appends clips of a bunch of psychologists talking over the credits, explaining the basic concepts underlying the movie’s “mind blowing” theme). There’s a difference between subverting an audience’s expectations and betraying them. Early on, Green’s internal monologue informs us that “in every con, there is always a victim. The trick is to know when you’re the latter…” At the end of Revolver, you’ll know you’ve been the victim of Guy’s jejune “gotcha!”

Revolver was the kind of self-indulgent mess that could easily have ended Ritchie’s career, particularly following as it did on the heels of another huge flop (the romantic comedy Swept Away). If nothing else, it’s a testament to the director’s perseverance that he’s still cranking out films for major studios today. He certainly hasn’t dared to try anything this outside-the-box since.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Ritchie may still be working within his beloved cockney gangster milieu, but he does to it something akin to what Alejandro Jodorowsky did to the Western with El Topo, or to the slasher flick with Santa Sangre. In short, Revolver is a strange trip that dazzles the eye and exercises the brain, amply rewarding multiple viewings and certainly worthy of critical reevaluation.”–Anton Bitel, Eye for Film (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Daniel wiram, who called it an “outstandingly [weird] but great movie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE MOUSE AND HIS CHILD (1977)

DIRECTED BY: Charles Swenson, Fred Wolf

FEATURING: Voices of , Joan Gerber, , Andy Devine, Frank Nelson

PLOT: A young clockwork mouse and his father find themselves lost in the world, encountering a host of eccentric characters.

Still from The Mouse and His Child (1977)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Taking on the appearance of a standard-issue children’s animation, The Mouse and His Child casually delves into such topics as philosophy, destiny, and the search for infinity, all represented through a world absurd even by the standards of cartoon logic.

COMMENTS: The 1970s were a tumultuous time for animated cinema in the west. was making his scandalous debut, and films like Coonskin and Fritz the Cat were introducing the once-unthinkable notion that animated films clearly crafted for adults could, in fact, not only exist, but have a genuine market. Animated movies aimed at children remained dominated by Disney, who didn’t exactly release their most iconic features in this particular decade. Younger upstarts like Pixar and (ugh) Dreamworks hadn’t yet emerged to contest Disney’s place as the prime source of children’s animation.

That’s one of the reasons why The Mouse and His Child is so noteworthy. Not only did it have the audacity to enter into the heavily monopolized animation market, but it did so with a movie that took a vastly different approach to children’s entertainment.

It ought to be said that kids, especially ones raised on today’s media, probably won’t enjoy The Mouse and His Child all that much. But as a curiosity piece—an example of just how remarkably eccentric children’s animation can be while still technically fitting into that category—it’s really quite priceless.

I’ve not read the book that this movie was based on, nor have I read any of Russell Hoban’s other works; but if this adaptation is a faithful reflection of the source material, it’s hardly surprising that it was penned by an author who also dabbled in magical realism and had extensive experience writing for adults. Themes well outside the interests of any child dominate the narrative, and the film’s approach to the nature and structure of reality is one that, while not exactly elaborate, has more depth to it than is normal for a children’s film.

The story opens in a toy shop, where the titular mouse and his child—a pair of clockwork toys—have newly arrived. Here, all the clockwork mechanisms live under the strict leadership of a ghostly grandfather clock, who robotically instructs them that they are to do only what they are “wound to do” and that love, family, and free thought are not accommodated for under “clockwork rules.” It isn’t long, however, before an accidental spill off the table and into a bin sends the mice accidentally carted off out into the world, where they head off on a clearly allegorical quest to become “self-winding.”

On their journey, the Mouse and his Child encounter the various oddities of this world, which might be best described as akin to The Animals of Farthing Wood if Farthing Wood happened to be the campus of a liberal arts university. A crooked rat cons and swindles his way through the movie (like any good cartoon rodent) while delivering every line with a thespian trill. A would-be clairvoyant frog struggles to reconcile his sincere belief in the concept of destiny with his fraudulent fortune-telling racket. A shrew resides in a hole by a pond, obsessing over abstract mechanical theories whilst shrugging off the plight of the forlorn clockwork creatures whom his talents could aid. And in a lake, an aged turtle ponders furiously over the Droste image on the label of a discarded dog food tin, convinced that some great universal truth lies beyond “the last visible dog”.

What really sets The Mouse and His Child apart is not the barriers it breaks, but rather the absurd middle ground that it occupies, one so difficult to precisely pin down that it could be considered the sole example of its own sub-genre. Far too introspective and philosophical for children’s entertainment, yet never approaching the edginess and vulgarity typical of “adult” animation, it resembles, more than anything else, an absurd experiment: a bold attempt to marry philosophy and animation. Mixing these two was unheard of at the time, and even in our more explorative day and age, there are few folks out there who flirt with the notion of exploring infinity and universal truth within the format of children’s animation. How well it works is a matter of debate better left to those better versed in philosophical matters than I; but there is little denying that, even now, over four decades later, with the boundaries of animation pushed much farther than once they were, there are still very few—if any—films quite like this one.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a curious mishmash overall, well animated yet not entirely satisfying, whether you have read the book or not. The sense that there’s a lot going on underneath the surface lingers, however, a need to find meaning in it all.”–Graeme Clark, The Spinning Image

CAPSULE: THE SAILOR WHO FELL FROM GRACE WITH THE SEA (1976)

DIRECTED BY: Lewis John Carlino

FEATURING: Jonathan Kahn, Sarah Miles, , Earl Rhodes

PLOT: A young boy growing up in a seaside English town with his widowed mother is involved in a cultlike group of juvenile delinquents, but idolizes a passing sailor who woos his mom… for a while.

Still from The Sailor Who Eell from Grace with the Sea (1976)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is one of the all-time great titles, but definitely not one of the all-time weirdest movies. What little weirdness it has is more of a function of its unfashionable (some might say “clumsy”) use of symbolic narrative than anything else.

COMMENTS: Lewis John Carlino (screenwriter of Seconds) adapted The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea from a novel by oddball nationalist Japanese writer . Some critics argue that, in changing the location from Japan to Wales, the movie fails to achieve greatness because it can’t translate Mishima’s specifically Japanese cultural concerns to screen.

I disagree. I think The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea fails to achieve greatness on its own merits. Specifically, the movie is poorly paced, losing rather than gaining steam as it goes on, and the acting is flat and uninspired. Sarah Miles does best as the young widow hiding her simmering sexuality under the cover of prim country Victorianism (although her mournful masturbation scene in front of her dead husband’s portrait is risible). Kris Kristofferson is mainly there as a manly prop for the sex scenes, a duty he performs well enough. The main acting issue is one that brings down many coming-of-age films: the reliance on young, untrained actors in crucial roles. Star Jonathan Kahn, whose only other credits were literary parts in BBC juvenile television adaptations, is just serviceable: he has the look of a conflicted adolescent, but he can’t channel the surging hormonal rage needed here. Earl Rhodes, as “Chief,” is more of an obstacle to success. He gives theatrical speeches that sound like a schoolboy’s self-serving impressions of Nietzsche (“morality is nothing more than a set of rules adults have invented to protect themselves.”) He always sounds like he’s reading from a script and never develops the sinister charisma necessary for us to buy him as a mini-Manson; and if we can’t believe he seduces his schoolboy chums into bizarre acts of anti-adult rebellion (like a ritual involving a poor kitty), the delicate credibility of the plot falls apart.

Hints of perversity and sex can’t overcome the movie’s over-solemnity (the tone they were going for was “haunting,” but it’s a near miss). Sailor‘s lack of spark is a shame, because the film raises a multitude of interesting topics: youthful rebellion, missing father figures, Oedipal desire, the foundations of morality, the lure of romanticism, the tension between pure ideology and real life. While there is a certain fateful irony in the conclusion (optimistically promoted as “startling” in the tagline), it’s deliberately telegraphed so that there is no suspense. A few indicia of derangement–dissonant baroque music played on prepared piano during the boy’s memory of seeing his nude mother, a stuttering montage as the boys prepare their final act–give the movie the slightest touch of formal strangeness.

There is one major support for the interpretation that the film is a failure of translation. Mishima likely intended the novel as an allegory for Japan’s postwar situation, and viewed the boys as the upcoming generation of heroes and patriots who would overthrow Western domination of “pure” Japanese culture. In Carlino’s hands, these brats are misguided monsters, Lords of the Flies refugees, who make the parents into tragic victims of their misguided fanaticism. Obviously, that’s a seismic thematic shift—but again, I don’t think that’s the reason the movie fails to hit its mark. With more vital direction, they could have pulled the reversal off.

At the moment The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is free to watch on Tubi.tv (no way to know if that will still be true by the time you read this, naturally).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…has an intriguing effect by virtue of its very strangeness, with its uneasy combination of a sex-starved widow and twisted kids making for, at the very least, a memorable experience, if not entirely for the right reasons.”–Graem Clark, The Spinning Image

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

353. TEOREMA (1968)

AKA Theorem

“I have just seen something absolutely disgusting! Pasolini’s latest film, Teorema. The man is mad!”–Maria Callas, soon before accepting the lead role in Pasolini’s Medea

DIRECTED BY: Pier Paolo Pasolini

FEATURING: , Laura Betti, Massimo Girotti, Silvana Mangano, Andrés José Cruz Soublette,

PLOT: After an introduction in which a worker is interviewed about the factory his boss just gave him as a gift, we see a bourgeois family receive an invitation saying that a visitor will be coming soon. It turns out to be a handsome but unnamed young American man; every member of the family, and even the maid, fall in love with him, and he sleeps with each of them in turn. Another telegram arrives saying that the stranger has been called away, and after he departs the family falls apart.

Still from Teorema (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • Pier Paolo Pasolini originally planned Teorema as a play, but changed it to a screenplay because he believed there was not enough dialogue for it to work on the stage.
  • Despite Pasolini’s Marxism, the relatively liberal International Catholic Organization for Cinema awarded a jury prize to Teorema (as it had to his more conventional 1964 film The Gospel According to Matthew). Pope Paul VI personally criticized the award, and it was withdrawn by the organization.
  • As happened with many of Pasolini’s films, Italian authorities challenged Teorema as obscene. As always, the Italian courts eventually cleared it for public screenings after a trial.
  • Pasolini later adopted Teorema into a novel (which has not, to our knowledge, been translated into English).
  • Composer Giorgio Battistelli adapted the movie into an opera in 1992.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The proletarian saint hovering over her village church. The father, naked on the slopes of Mt. Etna, screaming at the heavens, is a close runner-up. We reject the idea that a closeup of Terence Stamp’s crotch in tight white pants is the most important visual symbol in the film, although we can see how someone might come to that conclusion.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Manspreading Stamp; levitating saint; naked, screaming pop

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Simply stated but open to endless interpretation, Pasolini’s Teorema operates on a strange logic of its own, a kind of triangulated synthesis of Marx, Freud, and Jesus Christ. Any movie in which God appears as a bisexual pretty boy has something weird going for it.


British Blu-ray trailer for Teorema

COMMENTS: It’s a happy coincidence that Teorema—the most Continue reading 353. TEOREMA (1968)

345. WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES (2000)

Werckmeister harmóniák

“There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still choiring to the young-eyed cherubins.
Such harmony is in immortal souls,
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.”

–William Shakespeare, “The Merchant of Venice,” V., 1., 58-63

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Lars Rudolph, Peter Fitz,

PLOT: Soft-spoken János takes care of his uncle, an aging musician and music theorist, in a small Hungarian town. One day a modest circus, featuring only a stuffed whale and a mysterious freak known as “the Prince” as its attractions, comes to town. János is impressed by the majesty of the whale and sneaks in to see it one night, and overhears the Prince declaring “Terror is here!”

Still from Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

BACKGROUND:

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Whale’s massive dead eye, juxtaposed with tiny humans.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Drunks enact the Solar System; eye of the Whale; the Prince speaks

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Werckmeister Harmonies is a bleak and obliquely allegorical parable in which a Whale and a Prince bring a local apocalypse to a poor but peaceful Hungarian town. A political horror movie that creeps over you slowly, wrapping you in a fog of mysterious dread.

Fan-made trailer for Werckmeister Harmonies

COMMENTS: How many times have you been at a bar at closing Continue reading 345. WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES (2000)