Tag Archives: Philosophical

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, Anne Wiazemsky

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, Hanna Schygulla

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)

340. A ZED & TWO NOUGHTS (1985)

“The film contains three absurd propositions that aren’t impossible but are highly improbable: 1) Siamese twins who don’t want to be reunited; 2) a woman fascinated by zebras who dreams of being raped by them; and 3) a crippled woman who gives birth to twins whose fathers are also twins. These are deliberately bizarre notions that we’ll be trying to render believable using all the artifices of cinema.”–Peter Greenaway on A Zed and Two Noughts

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Brian Deacon, Eric Deacon, , Frances Barber, , Agnès Brulet

PLOT: The wives of two zoologist brothers are killed when a car driven by their friend Alba Bewick strikes a swan outside the zoo where they work. The grieving brothers question Alba, now missing a leg and bed-ridden, trying to find answers to the tragedy, while simultaneously documenting the decomposition of various animal corpses with time-lapse photography. Eventually both brothers fall for Alba, forming a strange menage a trois.

Still from A Zed and Two Noughts (1985)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was Peter Greenaway’s second theatrical feature, after The Draughtsman’s Contract (1980’s The Falls was made for television). It was partially filmed at the Rotterdam Zoo.
  • Zed was the first (of an eventual eight) of Greenaway’s collaborations with cinematographer Sacha Vierny. Vierny’s other projects included Last Year at Marienbad, Belle de Jour, and The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, making him arguably 366’s favorite cinematographer.
  • In keeping with the alphabetic sub-theme, Greenaway and Vierny worked out twenty-six different ways to light a set.
  • Painter Johannes Vermeer inspired the film’s look. The character named Van Hoyten is a reference to van Meegeren, the famous Vermeer forger.
  • On its original American release A Zed and Two Noughts was sometimes screened alongside “Street of Crocodiles.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Peter Greenaway films each scene like a painting: static, with characters arranged in precise visual relationships, moving very little. That technique creates a multitude of memorable tableaux: two children dragging a dog past the enormous blue ZOO sign at the Rotterdam Zoo, Alba with her head sticking through the car windshield while a swan’s hindquarters decorate the hood, the twins flanking the legless woman in bed. For something with a bit of motion to it, you could pick one of the slightly nauseating time-lapse experiments, such as the decaying  zebra corpse (which heaves as it is swollen with scurrying maggots, then deflates as they consume its guts). We decided on the image of the legless man standing erect on crutches, a character who suddenly shows up in the film for no other reason than to provide a masculine symmetry to maternal amputee Alba.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Accident on Swann’s way; sex for corpses; snail suicide sabotage

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Greenaway’s highly structured, artificial movies often come off as strange simply because of the complicated intellectual conceits behind them; but this tale of amputees, carcasses, and cages played out in the stylized zoo of his mind might be his weirdest, right down to its decaying bones.


Brief clip (opening) from A Zed and Two Noughts

COMMENTS: A Zed and Two Noughts begins with death and climaxes Continue reading 340. A ZED & TWO NOUGHTS (1985)

CAPSULE: ZEN DOG (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Rick Darge

FEATURING: , Adam Hershman, Celia Diane

PLOT: A young virtual reality entrepreneur explores strange herbs and lucid dreaming in an attempt to shake himself out of his rut.

Still from Zen Dog (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Zen Dog is an earnest, low budget curiosity that dreams big, but doesn’t dial up the weird as much as it might—for fear of drowning out its message.

COMMENTS: I read Allan Watts’ classic “The Way of Zen” when I was eighteen, then promptly forgot about him. That’s not a knock on Watts, but a testament to how good a communicator he was: read one book, listen to one of his lectures, and you feel enlightened, as if you know everything there is to know about Buddhism.

Zen Dog is structured around one of Watts’ thought experiment/parables, which begins “I wonder what you would do, if you had the power to dream at night any dream you wanted to dream…” Kyle Gallner’s “Mud” (!) is a twentysomething virtual-reality entrepreneur pushing headsets that will allow users to tour Hawaii or Paris without ever leaving their living rooms. He’s also having a recurring nightmare about slaving in a corporate office building where one of his co-workers commits suicide. Cue dorky cousin Dwayne, a professional student who arrives on spring break to crash on Mud’s couch and introduce him to the idea of lucid dreaming (aided by an exotic Chinese herb/drug nicknamed “maya”) as a way to resolve his psychological issues. Though purportedly a harmless natural sleep aid, the maya sure acts like a powerful hallucinogen—plus, it’s addictive. But it does enable Mud to enter his lucid dreamspace, where he begins to live the life he’s secretly always wanted—one where he’s a vagabond wandering around America in a VW bug borrowed from Ken Kesey and a jacket on loan from ‘s “Captain America,” meeting and romancing a (literal!) manic pixie dream girl while listening to a Allan Watts lectures on cassette tape.

The scenario sounds like a groovy neo-hippie fantasia, and without Watts’ calm, authoritative voice to guide us, it probably would play out as a naive goof. But Watts’ ruminations, though simplified and popularized, are legitimately profound nuggets of ancient wisdom: the idea that our entire ego-structure—our understanding of ourselves as a person with a name and a job and a desire for advancement—is an elaborate facade built up over the years, which (by design) inhibits our ability to be in the here and now, as a simple expression of reality. We must unlearn what we’ve been taught to know what we are. Compressed into several nights of dreaming, Mud travels through stages of enlightenment, from flirtations with simple hedonism to romantic attachment to elaborate mindblowing cosmic journeys—but ends up with the wisdom that, although his ego is a real and vital part of him, he does not have to allow its demands to make him miserable.

Despite its low budget, the acting and technical aspects of the film are serviceable to good. Zen Dog puts today’s democratizing computer technology to excellent use, achieving psychedelic effects—double images, pinpoint editing, rainbow saturation—with ease and facility. This is how would do it today, if he were still making acid movies aimed at the tune-in drop-out crowd. Scenes shot in San Francisco, Reno, Chicago, and the flat prairies of middle America add additional production value. Allan Watts’ son Mark served as an executive producer and licensed his father’s extensive audio archives for the film, and Zen Dog works best as an introduction to Watts’ philosophy—a noble purpose for a budget effort. It’s not every movie in which the characters drop acid while inside a lucid dream itself induced by a hallucinogenic herb—and where that far-out, Inceptiony scenario actually makes sense as part of a sophisticated theme positing that life itself is a dream which we can take control of, if we only realize we’re dreaming. Zen Dog isn’t ashamed to let its freak flag fly, and, like a guileless puppy, its enthusiasm can lighten a stern heart.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s all too easy to write off films like this as hippy fluff, and all too often they suffer from being made by people who are not entirely sober – a stranger’s trip usually being about as interesting as a stranger’s role-playing character – but Zen Dog is something different. There’s real craftsmanship on display here, tight editing and a laudably balanced approach that invites us to wonder without drowning us in excess.”–Jennie Kermode, Eye on Film (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE PERSECUTION AND ASSASSINATION OF JEAN-PAUL MARAT AS PERFORMED BY THE INMATES OF THE ASYLUM OF CHARENTON UNDER THE DIRECTION OF THE MARQUIS DE SADE (1967)

Recommended

AKA Marat/Sade

DIRECTED BY: Peter Brook

FEATURING: , , Glenda Jackson, Michael Williams

PLOT: The director of the Charenton asylum permits the prisoners to put on a play about the murder of one of the architects of the French Revolution; the machinations of the play’s notorious author, combined with the unique insanities of the cast, consistently threaten to derail the production.

Still from Marat/Sade (1967)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Marat/Sade is easy to admire but difficult to love, purposely distancing itself from its audience with a presentational style, a remote historical setting, and characters who are all but impossible to empathize with. By putting the great debates over the efficacy and morality of revolutionary fervor into the mouths of the sick and deranged, the movie declares its allegiance to a stranger flag. But while it is confrontational and occasionally repellent, Marat/Sade is still a thoughtful, methodical, and ultimately a sober work.

COMMENTS: Every once in a while, a play shows up on Broadway that is so alive with the enthusiasm and commitment of its cast, so daring in its subject matter, so determined to break away from the complacency and redundancy of its contemporaries, that it becomes a smash on the scale of the more attention-getting musicals. Recent years have seen plays such as “Angels in America,” “August: Osage County,” and “Take Me Out” demand the spotlight; in 1966, it was “Marat/Sade” that was all the buzz in the theater world. After the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of Peter Weiss’ original German-language play essentially launched the British fringe, it traveled across the Atlantic to dazzle America, becoming not only a hit but also shorthand for subversive, challenging theater.

So a movie version has a lot to live up to, and it’s a tribute to director Peter Brook’s vision that he manages to find the cinematic elements in the staging of a play. For Marat/Sade is working at multiple levels: a film of a play screening before an audience in which a play is being performed for an audience. It’s easy to lose track of which one you should be following. Consider the choices de Sade makes in casting his production. His Marat is portrayed by a paranoiac, Corday is a narcoleptic, Duperret a sex criminal. How much importance we should ascribe to these choices? Is this de Sade jesting with the historical figures? Is it Weiss assigning another layer of meaning to characters already laden with subtext? Is the whole thing a joke, designed to set up situations like Corday’s frequent mid-play naps? If theater is an author’s medium and film is a director’s medium, but one of the protagonists is a writer and director of the very work we’re watching, just who the hell is responsible?

Brook takes great pains to remind us that we are watching a play. The character of the Herald is constantly there to remind the actors of their lines. A chorus frequently chimes in with musical numbers that sound like lesser Newley/Bricusse tunes. And we get shots of the audience watching from the other side of the prison bars. But we get just as many hints that this is an impossible play. The script seems all too prepared to address the objections of the asylum director in dialogue. Our Marat seems not an actor at all, but the very man back from the dead, and de Sade engages him in debate as if he were the genuine article. And how the heck did this collection of crazies learn all these elaborate speeches, anyway? Whenever you think you’ve got your footing, Marat/Sade is there to give you a good shove.

Possibly the finest compliment you can give Marat/Sade is that you finish it thrilled and exhausted, but also unsure if you understood any of it. In trying to figure it out, I find it helpful to go back to that monstrously long (possibly even Guinness record-worthy) title, which is usually trimmed down to highlight the ostensible antagonists of the piece. In doing so, possibly the most important word to understanding the work as a whole is lost: “asylum.” In assessing the French Revolution, a particularly bloody uprising that overthrew a monarchy and then blundered through violence until another dictator arrived to grab control, it seems as though no one involved had the wisdom or foresight to anticipate the bloodshed that would result. By putting the subject in the hands of the insane, it specifically labels the enlightened masters of the uprising as insane themselves, and by placing the play under the auspices of a politician who represents the new dictatorship, it goes for broke and says everyone is crazy. Revolution is bloody, violent, destructive. To think otherwise, or to think that it won’t reach you, is dangerous folly, and Marat/Sade wants you to know that even if—especially if—you think you’re in control, then you’re next.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The typical dish or cable viewer, then, might utter ‘What the hell is this?’ and gaze upon the weirdness only momentarily, without even having put down the remote… Strange scenes can be felt but not always understood, and perhaps its impossible to do so.” – Brian Koller, Films Graded (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by Caleb Moss, who called it “pretty strange, to say the least.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)