Tag Archives: Poetic

CAPSULE: THE IRON ROSE [LA ROSE DE FER] (1973)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Françoise Pascal, Hugues Quester (as Pierre Dupont)

PLOT: Young lovers go mad when they are trapped in a cemetery overnight.

Still from The Iron Rose

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Iron Rose‘s wonderfully funereal setting and muted weirdness isn’t powerful enough to overcome its lack of events. The slow-paced visual poetry here is hit-or-miss, resonating strongly with some viewers while boring others stiff. I’m in the latter camp, I’m afraid; I believe there are brisker, more agreeable vehicles to represent Jean Rollin on the List.

COMMENTS: To many fans, La Rose de Fer represents the distilled essence of Jean Rollin: trancelike atmosphere, poetic visuals, and quiet, dreamy symbolism. With its couple making love all over a graveyard, rolling around in passion amongst the skulls and femurs, it’s also the most blatant example of the director’s desire to play matchmaker between Eros and Thanatos. And, while it’s correct to say Rose is pure Rollin, the very integrity of vision shown here exposes the director’s flaws even more than his virtues: his seeming indifference to character and story, his stilted faux-Symbolist dialogue, and, especially, his tortoise-influenced method of pacing. Rose begins on Rollin’s famous beach that appears in almost all of his movies; Françoise Pascal, the stunning and exotic half-Mauritanian actress/model, finds the titular mineral flower washed up on shore. She then walks through a field and a deserted French town; six minutes later, the plot begins as a young poet toasts her at a wedding reception with a ditty about death. The two arrange for a date and, after hitting it off quickly, end up in a magnificent French cemetery for a picnic and a little lovemaking inside a tomb (despite the girl’s initial reticence). The boneyard is almost deserted except for a few odd visitors, including a clown in full makeup who places flowers on a grave. When they emerge from the crypt in post-coital bliss, they find that night has fallen early, the boy has lost his watch, and the path they came in on appears to be missing. Although the scenario sounds like an promising blend of Freud and the Twilight Zone, it takes thirty minutes of plodding setup to reach this point, and when we finally do, Rollin offers us too little payoff for our patience. The boy Continue reading CAPSULE: THE IRON ROSE [LA ROSE DE FER] (1973)

99. THE TREE OF LIFE (2011)

“If the cosmic astronaut god-baby at the end of ‘2001’ could come back to Earth and make a movie? It would pretty much be ‘Tree of Life.'”–Film critic Andrew O’Hehir after the Cannes screening of Tree of Life (via Twitter)

“If you didn’t care for Tree of Life then genetically you are not a human being.”– (via Twitter)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Terrence Malick

FEATURING: , Hunter McCracken, Jessica Chastain,

PLOT:  A couple learns about the death of one of their three sons.  Then, a flashback covers events from the birth of the universe to the birth of the couple’s first son, Jack.  A series of impressionistic scenes show Jack growing up in a small Texas town, afraid of the stern father who wants to toughen him up to face life’s trials.

Still from The Tree of Life (2011)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Tree of Life may be a partial reworking of Q, a discarded Malick script from the 1970s, which was said to involve “a Minotaur, sleeping in the water, and he dreams about the evolution of the universe…
  • Producer Grant Hill recalls that when he first saw Terrence Malick’s original script for The Tree of Life, it was “a long document that included photographs, bits of material from his research, paintings, references to pieces of music.  It was like something I’d never seen or even heard of before.”
  • Special photographic effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull had worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Blade Runner (1982).  He came out of retirement to work on this film at Malick’s request.
  • Won the Palme D’or at Cannes in 2011 and was voted “best film” in Sight & Sound‘s 2011 poll.
  • After some theatergoers asked for their money back after screenings of the movie, the Avon Theater in Stamford, Connecticut put up a poster reading, in part: “We would like to remind patrons that THE TREE OF LIFE is a uniquely visionary and deeply philosophical film from an auteur director.  It does not follow a traditional linear narrative approach to storytelling. We encourage patrons to read up on the film before choosing to see it, and for those electing to attend, please go in with an opened mind and know that the Avon has a NO-REFUND policy once you have purchased a ticket to see one of our films.”
  • A shorter version of the film, featuring expanded versions of the birth of the universe sequences, is planned for a separate release as an IMAX documentary at a later date.
  • Our original July 5, 2011 review rated The Tree of Life a “Must See,” but demurred that the film was not quite weird enough to merit a place on the List.  Readers disagreed, and in the 2nd Reader’s Choice Poll they voted Malick’s masterpiece be promoted to a List Candidate.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Thanks to its cosmic visuals, The Tree of Life is compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey more often than any other movie.  That should tip you off that selecting a single indelible image is no easy task.  I could cheat and include the entire twenty minute birth of the universe montage.  I could select my personal favorite image: the child in a flooded, womb-like bedroom who swims out the window to be born as a teddy bear floats in the amniotic brine.  But I believe we will be forced to anoint the “gracious dinosaur” scene as the film’s most unforgettable gambit.  It’s Malick’s “chaos reigns” moment, the juncture at which you either get out of your seat and leave the theater, or experience your first weirdgasm of the evening.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Sometimes, when you spend your cinematic time immersed in the surrealistic worlds of and , it’s easy to forget how uncompromisingly radical and bizarre a film like The Tree of Life appears to someone whose idea of an “out there” movie is of Cowboys and Aliens. In our initial assessment of Malick’s grandiose God picture, we concluded that “surrealism is only used as an occasional accent here; overall, the mood is more accurately described as ‘poetic’ rather than ‘weird’” while acknowledging that “[a]ny movie that tells the story of a suburban Texas boy’s troubled relationship with his father—but uses a dramatic encounter between dinosaurs to illustrate its main point—is at least making a nod towards the bizarre.” In the months since that initial review, however, The Tree of Life‘s empyrean strangeness has continued to impress us as 2011’s best weird work. The clincher came when co-star Sean Penn complained to the French press, “A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! What’s more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.” That’s all the endorsement we need: when a movie is too weird for its own Hollywood stars, we have to accept that it’s just weird enough for us.


Original trailer for The Tree of Life

COMMENTS: A boy’s tempestuous relationship with Brad the Father is used as a metaphor for Continue reading 99. THE TREE OF LIFE (2011)

CAPSULE: THE TREE OF LIFE (2011)

The Tree of Life has been promoted to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies.  This initial review is left here for archival purposes.  Please visit the film’s official Certified Weird entry for further discussion of the film.

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Terrence Malick

FEATURING: Brad Pitt, Hunter McCracken, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn

PLOT: A man recalls his childhood in suburban Waco, Texas, and his difficult relationship with

Still from The Tree of Life (2011)

his father; in the process he also seems to unlock some primal memories of the creation of the universe and the evolution of life.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Any movie that tells the story of a suburban Texas boy’s troubled relationship with his father—but uses a dramatic encounter between dinosaurs to illustrate its main point—is at least making a nod towards the bizarre.  But, although there are many strange images and ideas in the stream-of-cosmic-consciousness Tree of Life, surrealism is only used as an occasional accent here; overall, the mood is more accurately described as “poetic” rather than “weird.”

COMMENTS: A boy’s tempestuous relationship with Brad the Father is used as a metaphor for nothing less than the turmoil between man and his Maker in Terrence Malick’s moon shot of a movie.  Told mostly as a series of hazy, almost dreamlike domestic memories, the story frequently drifts from reality to fantasy: at times, the boy imagines his mother as Snow White encased in a glass coffin in the forest, or sees a mysterious tall man looming over him in an arched attic.  In one memorable shot, a child in a flooded, womb-like bedroom swims out the window as a teddy bear floats in the amniotic brine.  But what people remember and talk about most are the amazing sequences of the laying of the foundation of the earth—the formation of nebulae, the birth of stars, molten lava boiling, merging into visions of the dance of cellular mitosis as the Tree of Life begins to form.  This leads to those famous graceful dinos who enact a unlikely primal drama, before a meteor wipes them out and we jump forward to our protagonist’s birth.  The cosmic creation sequences seem to come ex nihilo, and, despite the frequent comparisons to the far-out visuals of 2001: A Space Odyssey, they’re more like watching the “Best of Nova” on fast forward.  As is the rest of the narrative, the scenes of life’s gestation and birth are accompanied by the heavenly choral and symphonic sacred music of Bach, Taverner, Smetana, Mahler, and a host of others; history’s most glorious music written by man to express his wonder at creation.  It is impossible not to be awed by the splendor of the universe Malick lays out before us, and it’s impossible not to be intrigued by his brashness in recreating the cosmos for our benefit.  The middle section of the film, which details young Jack’s inability to comprehend gruff and demanding dad Brad’s harsh plan to toughen him up to face life’s challenges, will prove tough going for many due to the slow pace and lack of narrative flow, but it fits the movie’s meditative themes perfectly and gives the mind a chance to turn over the metaphor Malick molds.  The film’s finale, which may be its weakest (or at least its most divisive) feature, moves from the cosmic to the supercosmic as Sean Penn, the resentful little boy now turned into a doubtful and accusatory adult, walks through a door frame hanging in desert space onto a beach of souls.  You may not agree with Tree of Life‘s ultimate religious message, but you have to admire the sincerity and passionate intensity with which Malick delivers it.  He leaves nothing on the table.  Considering the pandering, preachy crud that passes as “inspirational” cinema these days, it’s a miracle to see a thoughtful spiritual movie that gives doubt its due and isn’t self-servingly made to elicit “hallelujahs!” from the pious choir (though they will likely praise it, too).  Based on the screening I attended, I can say that the reports of audible exhaling when the credits roll and the buzz of excited conversation outside theaters afterwards are not exaggerated.  Like it or not, or agree with the message or not, Tree of Life is a challenging and audacious work of cinema, and you’ll be better for having encountered it.

Beginning with the Charles Starkweather-inspired Badlands in 1973, the perfectionistic and reclusive Terrence Malick has only completed five feature films.  All of them are paced with unfashionable slowness, feature gorgeous natural cinematography, and wrestle with weighty themes (the Harvard-educated director was a Rhodes scholar who briefly taught philosophy at MIT before turning to film).  Now 63 years old, Malick has another project currently in the works, but The Tree of Life has the feeling of a cinematic summation and a swan song.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a beautiful, messy film: at times lyrical, intimate, and uplifting; at others, vast, inscrutable, and maddening.”–Christopher Orr, The Atlantic (contemporaneous)

NOTE: We loved The Tree of Life but didn’t really think it was strange enough to qualify as a “weird” movie (by our elevated standards).  366 readers disagreed, and in the 2nd Reader’s Choice poll they selected The Tree of Life to be placed on the List of Candidates for the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time.  So it is done.

77. SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR [Sånger från andra våningen] (2000)

“Beloved be those who sit down.”
–César Vallejo

“People have wondered how to classify my film. Absurdism or surrealism? What the hell is it?… This film introduces a style that I’d like to call ‘trivialism.’ Life is portrayed as a series of trivial components. My intention is to touch on bigger, more philosophical issues at the same time.”–Roy Andersson, DVD commentary to Songs from the Second Floor

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Roy Andersson

FEATURING: Lars Nordh, Stefan Larsson

PLOT:  Set at the dawn of the millennium in a nameless city that seems to be undergoing an apocalyptic panic—traffic is at a standstill as people try to leave all at once, parades of flagellants march down the street, and the Church considers returning to human sacrifice—Songs unfolds as a series of brief, seemingly unrelated, vaguely surreal scenes.  Eventually a main thread emerges involving a family: the father’s furniture business has just burnt down, one son has gone insane from writing poetry, and the other son is a melancholy cab driver.  The father enters the retail crucifix business and begins seeing ghosts.

Still from Songs from the Second Floor (2000)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film was inspired by the verse of the relatively obscure avant-garde Peruvian poet César Vallejo (1892-1938), whose poem “Stumble between to stars” is quoted in the film.  Anyone who thinks Andersson is obscure would do well to avoid Vallejo, whose work—with its invented words and grammar and difficult symbolism—recalls James Joyce at his most impenetrable.
  • Songs  from the Second Floor was Andersson’s third feature film, and his first since 1975’s Giliap.  He spent most of the intervening time directing commercials, although he did complete two highly regarded short films.
  • Andersson discovered Lars Nordh shopping for furniture at an IKEA.
  • Many of the exterior shots were actually shot inside Andersson’s studio with trompe l’oeil paintings or three-dimensional models as backgrounds .
  • All scenes are completed in one take.  The camera only moves once (a calm tracking shot in the railway station).
  • At the time of the film’s release reviewers consistently marveled that none of the scenes had been scripted or storyboarded beforehand.  The method here shouldn’t suggest that Andersson simply made up the film as he went along, however, as unused footage shows that each scene was meticulously rehearsed and refined dozens of times, often on incomplete sets with stand-ins for the actors, over what must have been a period of weeks or months.  Andersson says they sometimes shot twenty to twenty five takes per scene to achieve the perfect performance.
  • The film took four years to complete.
  • Songs from the Second Floor tied for the jury prize at Cannes in 2000 (the jury prize is the third most prestigious award after the Palme D’Or and the Grand Prix).
  • Andersson followed up Songs with You, the Living [Du Levande] (2007) (also Certified Weird). The two movies are extremely similar both thematically (the comically apocalyptic mood) and stylistically (made up of intricately composed, brief vignettes). Andersson has said he intends to create a trilogy; however, he has suggested that the third film may not follow the same style as the first two.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Fat Kalle standing at a deserted crossroads by the pile of discarded crucifixes, gazing at the figures approaching on the horizon, is an image worthy of European arthouse greats like Buñuel or Fellini.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: There are a few moments of magical realism in Songs from the Second Floor, involving subway commuters bursting into classical verse and the matter-of-fact appearance of ghosts, but even if these interludes hadn’t been included, the movie would feel strange because of the high artificiality of Andersson’s style: the static camera, the constant crowds of expressionless figurants gazing dispassionately at the action in the foreground, the carefully controlled compositions filled with background detail. Adding deadpan absurd black humor, bleak existentialism, and a sense of looming catastrophe into the mix produces a singular concoction, one that captured Sweden’s—and the West’s—mood of anxious despair as the new millennium dawned.


Scene from Songs from the Second Floor

COMMENTS: Songs from the Second Floor uses deep focus—the photographic technique Continue reading 77. SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR [Sånger från andra våningen] (2000)

25. NOSTALGHIA (1983)

“I wanted the film to be about the fatal attachment of Russians to their national roots, an attachment which they will carry with them for their entire lives, regardless of where destiny may fling them.  How could I have imagined as I was making Nostalghia that the stifling sense of longing that fills the screen space of that film was to become my lot for the rest of my life; that from now until the end of my days I would bear the painful malady within myself?” –Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Andrei Tarkovsky

FEATURING: Oleg Yankovskiy, Domiziana Giordano, Erland Josephson

PLOT: Andrei is a Russian poet is traveling around Italy in the company of a fetching translator, researching a biography of a Russian composer who studied in Italy before returning to Russia only to drink and kill himself.  Andrei becomes homesick and bored with the project, and with life in general, until he becomes fascinated by a insane man living in a small town famous for its natural mineral baths.  The madman gives him a simple symbolic task to perform—which Andrei procrastinates in completing— then leaves for Rome on a mission of his own.

Still from Nostalghia (1983)
BACKGROUND:

  • Tarkovsky was considered one of the finest filmmakers in the Soviet Union; he frequently ran into difficulty with the Soviet censors, however, particularly for his Christian viewpoints.  Although his films won acclaim at international film festivals, they were often shown to limited audiences in edited versions in his own country.  Work on the historical epic Tarkovsky was helming prior to Nostalghia had been halted by the Soviet censorship board because of scenes seen as critical of the state’s policy of official atheism.
  • Nostalghia was the first film Tarkovsky made outside the Soviet Union.  Originally intended to be a Soviet/Italian co-production, the state-owned USSR film production Mosfilm withdrew financial support for the project without comment after filming had already begun.
  • The film competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but was awarded a special jury prize instead.  Tarkovsky claimed that the Soviet contingent applied pressure to assure that the film would not be awarded the grand prize.
  • Tarkovsky defected to the West soon after Nostalghia was completed, leaving his wife and son behind.  They were eventually allowed to leave the country when he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1986.  Rumors persist that Tarkovsky did not die of natural causes, but was actually poisoned by the KGB in retaliation for his defection.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  There are many fine candidates.  The scene of Andrei attempting to carry a lit candle cupped in his hand across a drained spa may stick with the viewer, if not for its symbolism, then because it audaciously continues for over eight minutes.  But the final, static, picture postcard-like composition of a Russian homestead nestled inside an Italian cathedral perhaps captures Tarkovsky’s theme the best, and is shockingly beautiful, as well.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  The fluidity between the conscious and subconscious worlds. Although it’s almost always clear whether the events depicted actually occur or are imagined, Tarkovsky is much more interested in what is going on inside the heads of his alienated Russian poet and the Italian madman than in what is happening in the “real” world. He uses strong, sometimes obscure visual symbolism and dreams to convey an affecting mood of existential loneliness.


Trailer for Nostalghia

COMMENTSNostalghia can’t be approached without a word of warning: this movie is Continue reading 25. NOSTALGHIA (1983)