Tag Archives: Political Allegory

CAPSULE: THE BIG SHAVE (1967) (FROM “SCORSESE SHORTS”)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Peter Bernuth

PLOT: What starts out as a pleasant morning shave soon goes horribly wrong, turning into a bloody spectacle of self-mutilation as a man finds himself unable to stop shaving.

COMMENTS: I first saw The Big Shave on YouTube a few years ago, after hearing about American Boy (another film included on Criterion’s new “Scorsese Shorts” collection) via , who used a story from that film as inspiration for the adrenaline injection scene in Pulp Fiction. American Boy, a monologue film featuring Stephen Prince (a friend of Scorsese’s who had played a bit part in his feature film Taxi Driver), showed me that there was a side to Martin Scorsese that I never seen before, and encouraged me to dig deeper into Marty’s back catalog. The Big Shave, a gory allegory about the Vietnam War, is unlike anything else in Scorsese’s filmography, and left a mark on my memory that I’ve never been able to shake. Thanks to the Criterion Collection, The Big Shave, along with American Boy and three other early Scorsese short films, is now available to revisit in gloriously bloody HD.

To most cinephiles these days, Scorsese might seem like an untouchable symbol of classic Hollywood, one of the last quintessential “great” filmmakers, whose new films are treated with solemn reverence and his old films spoken of in hushed tones as some of the greatest of all times. But Mean Streets wasn’t his first foray into filmmaking, not by a long shot. The real story started 10 years earlier, when Scorsese was a film student at NYU. There he made two award-winning student films: What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? and It’s Not Just You, Murray. In a way, these two films reflect a spirit similar to what a lot of young film students were doing at the time. They’re blatantly irreverent and intentionally bizarre, with a gleeful determination to create a new way of making films inspired by the French New Wave.

However, unlike these fairly innocent student short films, The Big Shave doesn’t just set out to toy with the viewer’s mind, it aims to get under their skin, peeling it back to reveal what lies beneath. Had it been made in a different era, any number of meanings might be extracted from it, but seeing that it was a product of the late 1960s, it’s difficult to see it as anything other than a commentary on the self-destructive nature of the US military’s involvement in Vietnam. It even has an alternate title, Viet ‘67—but that might have made it too obvious.

It starts by establishing its setting: a sparkling white bathroom filled with sparkling silver fixtures. The bath faucets, the toilet paper holder, the sink—all are shown in pristine close-ups that establish Continue reading CAPSULE: THE BIG SHAVE (1967) (FROM “SCORSESE SHORTS”)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE WOLF HOUSE (2018)

La casa lobo

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Joaquín Cociña, Cristóbal León

FEATURING: Voices of Amalia Kassai, Rainer Krause

PLOT: Maria flees her community to avoid punishment and finds an abandoned house; fearing the wolf outside, she sequesters herself with two pigs which she raises as her children.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: As an experimental stop-motion animation, The Wolf House already has a leg-up against most competition. It becomes a lock for candidacy through its sinister storytelling framework, sociopolitical overtones, and the fact that you watch its settings and inhabitants literally being built up and broken down right before your eyes as its story unfolds.

COMMENTS: Everyone knows that idle hands are the Devil’s workshop; Joaquín Cociña’s and Cristóbal León’s are, on the other hand, a two-man workshop revealing the Devil’s evil. Stop-motion is undoubtedly the most time-consuming filmmaking method; but sometimes, as in The Wolf House, it is the most appropriate. Lacking both real-time film’s quick capture of reality and the infinite malleability of “pure” animation’s ink and lines, stop-motion is a demanding mistress, but one that allows for the uncanniest uncanny valleys and the most “other” other-worldliness. Cociña and León hand-assemble, hand-craft, and hand-paint a dark fairy tale amalgam that itself masks a far darker period in history.

After World War II, a number of prominent German officials fled Europe and cropped up in various points South American. One of those places was the “Colonia Dignidad,” a religious cult compound in Chile. For years, tales of hardship and child abuse drifted through its fortified walls, and the framing of The Wolf House is taken from this period. Presented as a counter-propaganda piece to dispel rumors of a “horrible secret” about this truly “isolated and pure” colony of agrarians, The Wolf House informs the viewer that the film they are about to see was found in the society’s vaults (lovingly “restored” by none other than Cociña and León). The story it tells, in its morphing and cryptic way, concerns a young woman fleeing a harsh punishment meted out by her village’s elders, but eventually learning that the parents know best.

The framing “documentary” is creepily reassuring, easing tonally into the movie proper. For that, it harnesses a variety of stop-motion techniques. Beyond the simplest form (move figure, shoot camera), there’s also “live-painting” animation. A young woman, Maria, seeks shelter in an abandoned house. Upon entering, the walls form in front of the camera, and decorations—bookshelves, clocks, framed pictures—appear and move toward their designated positions as Maria looks around. A woman’s figure eventually appears in a doorway (or mirror?) before branching from the walls in the form of a papier mâché figurine, who eventually finds two pigs—which, through a game she narrates, eventually morph into human children.

The Wolf House is only seventy-five minutes, about ten of which are credits, with ten more being the “documentary” bookends. But it contains countless chilling allusions. As a paneled window is painted on the wall, it ever so briefly appears as a swastika before the rest of the lines are filled in. There’s a mystical honey that causes children who consume it to change from mestizos into blonde Teutonic ideals (the surrounding documentary advertises the German commune’s prized honey). Maria’s fairy tale within the fairy tale concerns animals fleeing into the ground to escape “the wolf”, and a magical tree thanking her for leading them there; in reality, this alludes to the mass graves on the Colonia Dignidad’s grounds. With stop-motion, Cociña and León find that perfect abutment between reality and nightmare; with The Wolf House, they find the perfect abutment between parable and horror.

The Wolf House is currently streamable from distributor KimStim’s website at first-run rental prices ($12 for 26 hours); we’ll update this review when the availability changes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If an Orwellian fable were to be visualized by a surrealist in the vein of Salvador Dali, the result would look and feel something like ‘The Wolf House’… this shape-shifting, trippy nightmare from filmmakers Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña startles and terrifies in equal measure, while putting forth an uncompromising examination of fascism in a way that only animation can do.”–Tomris Laffly, Variety (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: COINCOIN AND THE EXTRA-HUMANS (2018)

Coincoin et les z’inhumains

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Alexia Depret

PLOT: Four years after the events of Li’l Quinquin, Quinquin (now Coincoin) has grown up and joined a far-right political group, while Commandant Van der Weyden investigates a mysterious black tar that is falling from the sky and a plague of doubles showing up in town.

Still from CoinCoin and the Extra-Humans (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: If Li’l Quinquin was worthy of consideration, then his equally odd brother Coincoin must be, too. Too bad we can’t mash Quinquin and Coincoin together into a single seven-plus-hour festival of Gallic strangeness.

COMMENTS: A lot has changed in the Côte D’Opale since we last visited Quinquin; and yet, nothing has really changed. Sure, Quinquin is now a strapping teenager who goes by “Coincoin” (like so much else in this world, the change in nomenclature is left a mystery). His old love interest, Eve, is now into girls. The outsiders are now undocumented Africans living in shantytowns on the outskirts of Calais instead of suburban Muslims. And no one worries about dead bodies found inside cows anymore; they’re more concerned with the black goo that’s falling from the heavens, usually splattering the cops at inconvenient times. But though the case may have changed, the tic-ridden Commandant Van Der Weyden and his foul-toothed assistant Carpentier are still on it. Their cruiser still tilts up on two wheels (in fact, it does so much more often). The townsfolk are still quaintly thoughtless and provincial. And there still is no resolution or logical explanation as to why this quiet French outpost is the locus of so much metaphysical weirdness. Most importantly, the project feels exactly the same: eccentric, tone-shifting, with little surreal jaunts off the beaten path, like Season 1 “” set at an out-of-the-way beach resort.

As for the weird bits: there’s a scene where CoinCoin can’t figure out how to kiss Christ, some blackface, a man attacked by a gull, and “clown” clones, not to mention the bizarre alien invasion (if that’s what it is) and a surprise at the end that I won’t spoil. Few of the comic bits—which stray close to border of anti-comedy—are funny in themselves; they only succeed through a relentless repetition that demonstrates Dumont’s sincere commitment to his style. Repetition is itself often the meta-joke: Carpentier does his “two-wheel” trick so often that his Captain complains it’s getting annoying (then continues to do it for several more episodes); doppelgangers are switched in mid-conversation so that conversations repeat themselves over and over and over. Meanwhile, Coincoin’s own plotline (now clearly secondary to the antics of the gendarmes) is almost entirely a realistic coming-of-age story; the boy is concerned with girls, mischief, and peer pressure, oblivious to what increasingly looks to be a modern Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style crisis until the events of the fourth episode force him to pay attention.

It’s hard to explain why Quinquin/Coincoin‘s blend of low-key absurdism, social awkwardness, grotesquerie, political swipes, and rural drama works; it seems like it shouldn’t. But it captures the Western world’s current mood of ambivalent anxiety as well as anything out there. An apocalypse is coming—maybe—and it’s actually sort of funny—a little.

Although it’s mostly of interest to those who saw the first miniseries, there’s no reason you can’t jump straight into this sequel first if you like.

The four episodes of Coincoin and the Extra-Humans are currently screening as a single long feature at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York City through July 28 and at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston on July 26 only as part of the Boston French Film Festival. Lil Quinquin played Netflix briefly after its release, but is now streaming on the Criterion Channel. That seems like the likely eventual landing spot for Coincoin once its brief theatrical run concludes. We’ll keep you updated.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Dumont hasn’t been a comedy director for very long but it now seems impossible to imagine a world without his endearingly ridiculous sense of humor and his genuine love for his affably weird protagonists. Dumont’s comedies are a gift we were never promised and now they’re something we should never have to live without.”–Scout Tafoya, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

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,

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. ((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, ((“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)