Tag Archives: Political Allegory

355. LUNACY (2005)

Sílení 

“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.”–Edgar Allen Poe, 1848 letter to George W. Eveleth

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jan Svankmajer

FEATURING: Pavel Liska, Jan Tríska, Anna Geislerová

PLOT: A young man suffers recurring nightmares about white-coated men coming to seize him in the night. When he awakens the guests at a roadside inn as he thrashes about during one of these attacks, one man, a modern-day Marquis, takes an interest in him and invites him back to his manor. There, the Marquis troubles the traveler with macabre games that may be real or may be staged, then suggests he voluntarily commit himself to an experimental mental asylum for “purgative therapy” to cure his nightmares.

Still from Lunacy [Sileni] (2005)

BACKGROUND:

  • The script is loosely based on two stories: “The Premature Burial” and “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” The character of the Marquis is obviously based on the .
  • Svankmajer wrote an initial version of the script that became Lunacy in the 1970s, but the Communist authorities refused to approve the film.
  • This was the last film Svankmajer would work on with his longtime collaborator, costume designer, and wife, Eva Svankmajerová; she died a few months after the film’s completion. Among her other duties, she painted the deck of cards featuring Sadean tortures.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It has to be one of Svankmajer’s meaty animations. We picked the scene of brownish cow tongues slithering out of a classical bust—including a pair escaping from the marble nipples—but we wouldn’t blame you for going with the sirloin marionettes instead.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Meat bumpers; shirt unlocking door; human chickens

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s got the Marquis de Sade, an asylum run by chicken-farming lunatics, and animated steaks dancing in between scenes. Despite that lineup, it may be Jan Svankmajer’s most conventional movie. The director calls it an “infantile tribute to Edgar Allen Poe” in his introduction—and is interrupted by a tongue inching its way across the floor.


Introduction to Lunacy (2005)

COMMENTS: The trailer explains that ” + the Marquis de Sade + Jan Svankmajer = Lunacy.” It’s self-evident that combining these three uniquely perverse talents would produce something singularly strange; the fun in watching the movie is in seeing Continue reading 355. LUNACY (2005)

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)

253. IF…. (1968)

“What child has ever been silly enough to ask, when Cinderella’s pumpkin turns into a golden coach, where reality ends and fantasy begins?”–Lindsay Anderson

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , David Wood, Richard Warwick, Robert Swann, Hugh Thomas, Peter Jeffrey, Christine Noonan

PLOT: Mick Travis is a rebellious teenage boy at a British boarding school. Because of “general attitude,” he and two friends are persecuted and beaten by the “whips,” older students given privileges to enforce discipline. During military exercises, Mick and his friends discover a cache of automatic weapons and make plans to disrupt the school’s Founders’s Day celebration.

Still from If.... (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • In England if…. was controversial due to its unflattering portrayal of English boarding schools (particularly, one suspects, of the depiction of pervasive homosexuality) and, by extension, of English traditions in general. When David Sherwin and John Howlett brought their original screenplay to one producer, he called it “the most evil and perverted script he’s ever read.”
  • The film was inspired by ‘s 1933 Certified Weird anarchist screed Zéro de conduite, relocated from 1930s France to then-contemporary Britain.
  • if… was filmed mostly on location at Cheltenham College, director Lindsay Anderson’s alma mater. Many of the boys who appear in smaller roles were students there at the time. A doctored script, missing the final scenes, was given to the college, since the school never would have granted permission to shoot if they had known if…’s climax beforehand.
  • This was Malcolm McDowell’s film debut.
  • Look for portraits of famous revolutionaries and icons of rebellion like Che Guevara, Geronimo, Vladimir Lenin, James Dean and others hanging on the boys’s walls.
  • There is a legend that the film shifted from black and white to color because the producers ran out of money for color stock. Lindsay Anderson contradicted these rumors, saying that they decided to shoot the first chapel scene in black and white due to lighting considerations. He liked the effect so much that he inserted black and white scenes at random to disorient the viewer and to hint at the fantasy elements to come later.  Anderson insists there is no symbolic “code” or reasoning for why some scenes are monochrome and some in color.
  • Distributor Paramount was horrified by the film and certain it would bomb in Britain. They wanted to bury it, but at the last minute they needed a movie to screen in London to replace their current flop: Barbarella. if… went on to be a hit.
  • if…. won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, although in the commentary Malcolm McDowell recalls that he was told that the film actually came in third in the voting, but was chosen as a compromise because the jury could not break a deadlock between supporters of Costa-Gavras’s Z and Bo Widerberg’s Adalen 31.
  • Lindsay Anderson and Malcolm McDowell made three films together, in three different decades. In each of them McDowell plays a character named “Mick Travis,” although based on their varying personalities it’s unlikely that they are intended to be the same person. The other two “Mick Travis” films are 1973’s O Lucky Man! and 1982’s Britannia Hospital.
  • Anderson actually wrote a proper sequel for if…, which was to take place at a class reunion, which was unfilmed at the time of his death in 1993.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The final shootout, as a whole; it’s both a troubling massacre and an immensely satisfying revenge. Early posters of if… favored shots of star McDowell or the photogenic Girl; we prefer the brief image of a dowager who grabs a machine gun and pitches in for the defense of the school.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Tiger mating ritual; chaplain in a drawer; granny with a machine gun

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Throughout most of its run time if… is a viciously realistic boarding school drama. But when the Headmaster sternly tells the boys “I take this seriously… very seriously indeed” after Mick shoots a chaplain and bayonets a teacher during the school’s campus war games, we suddenly realize the line between realism and fantasy has been thinner than we thought.


Original U.S. release trailer for if….

COMMENTS: if…‘s theme is the conflict between tradition and rebellion, age and youth, especially resonant concerns in the tumultuous year of 1968, when the firebrand film was fortuitously released a few months after the student riots in Paris. Structurally, ifContinue reading 253. IF…. (1968)

CAPSULE: SALO, THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (1975)

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto P. Quintavalle, Aldo Valletti

PLOT: Four Italian fascists kidnap dozens of young boys and girls and imprison them in an isolated villa to sexually torture them in bizarre rituals of sadism.

Still from Salo: the 120 Days of Sodom

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There are a lot of words that can be used to describe Salo: disturbing, intense, perverse, depressing, extreme. “Weird” is pretty far down the list. (I did not find any critics who used the word “weird” in discussing Salo). So many of our readers have nominated it for review that I am forced to confess that it may be found lurking somewhere in the outermost penumbra of the weird—but if you want to see a truly weird treatment of the same source material, look at how ended L’Age d’Or with a Surrealist reference to the same novel adapted in Salo. 1)Henri Xhonneux and also make far stranger references to the book in their twisted De Sade biopic, Marquis. Casting Jesus Christ as Duc de Blangis is less obscene but far more provocative than anything Pasolini could depict in his literal rendition of the book.

COMMENTS: “Although these crimes against humanity are historically accurate, the characters depicted are composites… and the events portrayed, have been condensed into one locality for dramatic purposes… We dedicate this film with the hope that these heinous crimes will never occur again.”

Salo, The 120 Days of Sodom may seem stranger to someone who comes to the movie with no foreknowledge of the source material, the Marquis De Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom,” than it does to someone who knows the backstory. De Sade, of course, is the 18th century writer whose name inspired the now commonplace words “sadism” and “sadist.” He was an aristocrat devoted to literature, philosophy, and pornography (not in that order), and he produced some genuinely accomplished works. His most powerful books, such as “Philosophy in the Bedroom” and “Justine: the Misfortunes of Virtue,” mix shocking depictions of sexual cruelty with virile intellectual monologues wherein the characters philosophically justify their depravity and smash moralist objections.

“The 120 Days of Sodom” was not one of those books. It was De Sade’s first major work, written while was imprisoned in the Bastille (for a string of crimes including the beating of a prostitute and consensual homosexual sodomy). “Sodom” is an obsessive catalog of perversions, with almost none of the philosophical speeches that would add meaning and value to De Sade’s later work, 2)“The 120 Days of Sodom”  was unfinished and the ending only sketched, so it is conceivable De Sade would eventually have inserted philosophical reflections later. arranged according to a mathematical progression: 30 days of orgies in each set of four escalating perversions, moving from “simple” passions (such as urine drinking) to “murderous” ones. The novel was probably intended for De Sade’s own sexual gratification. The result is the Continue reading CAPSULE: SALO, THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (1975)

References   [ + ]

1. Henri Xhonneux and also make far stranger references to the book in their twisted De Sade biopic, Marquis.
2. “The 120 Days of Sodom”  was unfinished and the ending only sketched, so it is conceivable De Sade would eventually have inserted philosophical reflections later.

CAPSULE: ARABIAN NIGHTS (2015)

Volume 1 – the Restless One

As Mil e Uma Noites: Volume 1, O Inquieto

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Miguel Gomes

FEATURING: Crista Alfaiate, Miguel Gomes

PLOT: Vignettes of the lives and circumstances of various “everyman” Portuguese citizens are spliced together in the form of a series of tales à la Arabian Nights.

Still from Arabian Nights Vol 1: The Restless One (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As an almost wholly documentary-style pastiche narrative, Arabian Nights is not so much weird as relentlessly tedious and preachy. A spark of the bizarre, when the director seemingly abandons his own movie, is slow to appear and is quickly snuffed out as the film-makers go on to sermonize the audience with tales of woe.

COMMENTS: Early in the movie a massive red flag pops up when the director admits that he suspects it impossible to make a movie about tales of wonder when he’s surrounded by the uncompromising dreariness of everyday life. Indeed, he does find it impossible. He takes one of the earliest examples of fantasy as a storytelling framework to convey a series of tales that delve into the personal costs borne by Portugal’s citizenry during the Euro crisis years of austerity (from August 2013 through July 2014, as explained by an inter-title that doubles as a disclaimer about the use of the Arabian Nights name). What follows is, well, both a grind and a bore.

I mentioned earlier that there was a tiny glimmer of something interesting occurring. While the director suffers his existential crisis (something that, like the movie, only truly springs into action after twenty five minutes of dockyard and hornet nest clips dubbed over with remarks about the collapse of the shipping and honey industries), he flees his own crew and tries to hide. He is found by unidentified militants who sentence him to death for his filmic recklessness. So now we have our storyteller neck-deep in sand, and the not-so-subtle allegories begin, sporting the titles “the Men with Hard-Ons,” “The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire,” and finishing with the tripartite “Story of the Magnificents.” Each in turn becomes progressively less allegorical and increasingly polemical.

Having taken advantage of the dubious opportunity of enrolling in a “Filmmakers with a Social Conscience” seminar back in my long-distant college days, that “genre” was the first, and almost only, one that sprang to mind while watching Arabian Nights. In the vein of Soviet Socialist Realism, glorifying the common man, as well as that of Italian Neo-Realism, Arabian Nights eschews the traditional tools of (truly) cinematic storytelling in favor of capturing reality as closely as possible. While such a practice isn’t something I particularly enjoy, I don’t begrudge the fans of the genre their entertainment (or whatever word would describe the experience). However, it most certainly isn’t the way to make a weird movie.

Taking over two hours to convey its message of “austerity is unkind to the masses” (actually over six hours—there are two more installments that I am shying away from) using the same documentary/talking heads/ voiceover techniques throughout lends itself to whinging tedium. I wonder what Mr Gomes’ Iberian confrère, , might have done instead. Buñuel dabbled in documentary back in the 1930s with a short piece entitled Land Without Bread. In the space of twenty seven minutes, he not only raises the viewer’s awareness of the plight of grinding poverty in a backwards rural society, but also thoroughly tweaks the documentary genre’s nose. A modern take on Buñuel’s socially conscientious subversion might have been interesting; Gomes’ outing barely qualifies as a movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an opaque compendium of stories – like the ones Scheherazade told to stave off her own death – all responding in indirect ways to the miseries forced on Portugal by austerity, as if by a social-realist Buñuel with a bit of the novelist José Saramago’s existential musing; the same kind of absurdism and deadly serious political scepticism.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE DEVIL (1972)

Diabel

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:  Leszak Teleszynski, Wojciech Pszoniak, Malgorzata Braunek, Monika Niemczyk, Wiktor Sadecki, Iga Mayr, Anna Parzonka, Maciej Englert, Bozena Miefiodow

PLOT: In 1793, during the Prussian Army’s invasion of Poland, an imprisoned anti-royalist nobleman, Jakub, is freed by a Stranger-in-Black, for reasons unknown. Returning to his home and family, he finds only chaos and madness: his father dead, sister insane, his mother a prostitute, and his former fiance pregnant and now married to his best friend. Encouraged by the Stranger who comes and goes at will, Jakub starts dealing out some hardcore revenge with a straight razor and slipping further into madness; but, who is this Stranger and what exactly is his game?

diabel-3

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This is perhaps the first Zulawski film that has most of the elements that he became known for in place. From the opening frame onward, it is completely balls-to-the-wall in intensity, making ‘s The Devils look like a model of restraint.

COMMENTS: “Tell me, does the world seem horrible to me because of my illness or because it is really like that?”

Zulawski’s second feature film was banned in Poland for 18 years (!) and essentially got him exiled to France. In an interview with Stephen Thrower and Daniel Bird for “Eyeball Magazine,” Zulawski explains the how and why of it.

At that time (1971),  a tragedy happened in Poland in this very repressive and bloody regime. A part of the Communist establishment wanted to seize power. In order to do this they devised a very clever trick. They provoked youth – innocent, naive university youth especially – to start a series of protests on the streets against censorship, lack of freedom. They did it on purpose. Then the Communists turned to the Russians, the landlords, saying ‘this government of Poland cannot control the population, so you have to fire them and take us because we know how to deal with them.’ They organized a savage repression of the Polish young people in March 1968… they destroyed the university education system and this generation of young people who were trapped into this protest went into oblivion. They are nothing today; they were never educated, they went to jail, etc. So I wanted to tell this story but obviously I couldn’t say it with the Polish government’s money. So I put it under the masks and costumes of the 18th Century, when several tragedies annihilated Poland and the situation was about the same. It’s the story of a police provocateur who infiltrates a group of young people preparing something patriotic and beautiful and who just destroys the whole thing.

Obviously, the authorities twigged quickly that The Devil was not the Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE DEVIL (1972)

200. METROPOLIS (1927)

“I have recently seen the silliest film. I do not believe it would be possible to make one sillier… Never for a moment does one believe any of this foolish story; for a moment is there anything amusing or convincing in its dreary series of strained events. It is immensely and strangely dull. It is not even to be laughed at. There is not one good-looking nor sympathetic nor funny personality in the cast; there is, indeed, no scope at all for looking well or acting like a rational creature amid these mindless, imitative absurdities.”–H.G. Wells

“Those who understand cinema as an unassuming storytelling mechanism will be deeply disappointed in Metropolis. That which it recounts is trivial, overblown, pedantic and outdatedly romantic. But, if to the tale we prefer the ‘plasitco-photogenic’ background of the film, then Metropolis will fulfill our wildest dreams, will astonish us as the most astonishing book of images it is possible to compose.”–Luis Buñuel

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Gustav Fröhlich, Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Rudolf Klein-Rogge

PLOT: The future city of Metropolis is starkly divided between two classes: the rulers who spend their days in pleasure gardens, and the workers who live underground and run the massive machines that supply the city with power. Freder, the son of Joh Fredersen, the most powerful man in Metropolis, discovers the existence of the underground world when he becomes entranced by beautiful Maria, a woman who prophesies to the workers that a Mediator will come to unite the two classes. Joh is not happy with this development and he enlists the scientist Rotwang to kidnap Maria and create a robotic duplicate of her to discredit her with the workers; but the doctor, who harbors a personal grudge against Fredersen, sabotages the plan.

Still from Metropolis (1927)
BACKGROUND:

  • Metropolis cost 5 million reichmarks to produce (about $24 million in inflation-adjusted dollars). This would make it one of the most expensive movies of its era, and although its cost has often been exaggerated, it did almost send its studio into bankruptcy. The movie utilized thousands of extras: reports range between 25,000-37,000 people.
  • Adolph Hitler was a fan of Metropolis, despite having banned another of Fritz Lang’s films, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, for its anti-Nazi sentiments. Joseph Goebbels told Lang that he would be made an honorary Aryan despite his Jewish heritage (the director’s mother was a Jew who converted to Catholicism). Goebbels offered him a position as head of UFA, Germany’s national studio, which Lang declined.
  • Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou, wrote the screenplay for Metropolis and followed up with a novelization of the story. She willingly joined the Nazi party in 1932. Lang and von Harbou divorced in 1933. Lang fled to France in 1934, and then went on to Hollywood in 1936.
  • In the early years of movies, the concept of film preservation had not yet been formed, and many movies were lost when the prints decayed or were deliberately destroyed. At 153 minutes, Lang’s original Metropolis cut was too long for many exhibitors of the time, and 30 minutes were deleted after the premier for international audiences. Portions of the original uncut prints of Metropolis did not survive, and it was long thought that a complete version of the film would never surface. In 2008, however, a nearly complete print containing an additional 25 minutes of footage was discovered in Buenos Aires. Although of poor quality, the segments were incorporated into existing prints of Metropolis and the film was re-released to theaters (and later on home video) as “the Complete Metropolis.” A few minutes of footage are still believed to be forever lost, however.
  • Ranked #35 on Sight & Sound’s poll of the greatest movies of all time.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The robot encircled by electrified rings as it takes on the form of Maria is not only Metropolis‘ most memorable vision, it’s one of the most iconic images in all of cinema.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: An allegory of steely skyscrapers and miserable sewers, Metropolis is a movie that reveals, and revels in, the unique power of silent film to create an experience that feels more like living through a myth than listening to a story. Divorced from dialogue, drained of color, it is the pure images that stick in our memory, like fragments of a dream. Metropolis is not the weirdest film on our List, but its influence is seen throughout fantastic cinema (the cityscapes of Brazil would not have the same shape without it, to name just one example). Metropolis is simply too big to ignore.


Trailer for the 2010 restoration of Metropolis

COMMENTS: There is hardly an ounce of reality in Metropolis, which Continue reading 200. METROPOLIS (1927)