“And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that thou shouldest give reward unto thy servants the prophets, and to the saints, and them that fear thy name, small and great; and shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth.”–Revelation 11:18
PLOT: A writer and his wife live alone, rebuilding a house where the man used to live before it burned down. One day, a stranger shows up at their door and the husband invites him to stay, against the woman’s wishes. More uninvited guests arrive, first the family of the original man, and then hordes of the writer’s adoring fans, sowing complete chaos in the home just as the woman gives birth.
Darren Aronofsky says he wrote the first draft in “a fever dream” in just five days.
Per Aronofsky, 66 of the film’s 115 minutes are closeups of Jennifer Lawrence.
20th Century Fox passed on distributing the film due to a controversial scene.
The movie received a rare “F” rating on CinemaScore (which measures audience reactions). Fewer than 20 movies have ever received such a low score.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: We won’t mention the scene that makes the most impact for fear of spoiling your reaction. (You’ll know it when you see it). That leaves us looking for a second place image to fill this space; we’ll go with the vagina-shaped wound that develops out of a bloodstain on the house’s hardwood floor.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Urine-Seltzer; toilet heart; crowd-surfing baby
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Writer/director Aronofsky lets this movie go all to hell—mother! is his most irrational and difficult film, and also his most provocative, with one scene in particular that sent ’em packing to the exits. It’s a Hollywood offering with an outsider’s brashness, transgressing society’s norms—mostly by blaspheming against coherent realist narrative, the biggest taboo of all. Outraged moviegoers who came to see megastar Jennifer Lawrence’s horror film got a puzzling, punishing allegory instead. mother! was an all-too-rare “event movie” in the weird genre.
PLOT: A poet with writer’s block and his younger wife live alone in a remote house until their domestic tranquility is interrupted by an ever-increasing number of guests.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Writer/director Aronofsky lets the movie all go to hell—mother! is his most irrational and difficult film, and also his most provocative, with one scene that’s likely to send anyone with maternal instincts packing to the exits. It’s a Hollywood movie with an outsider’s boldness, and it’s going to be punished harshly at the box office for transgressing society’s norms—mostly by blaspheming against coherent realist narrative, the biggest taboo of all. Fans of this site will want to check it out in theaters if at all possible; whether you love it or find it a letdown, it’s a rare “event movie” in the weird genre.
COMMENTS: In its first week of release, the highly anticipated mother! has already been buried at the box office; and even though I have my reservations about the movie’s overall artistic success, let’s pause for a moment out of respect for a fallen brother (er, mother!) who dared to brave the multiplexes with a message of glorious excess, confused metaphor, baby abuse, and general cinematic dementia. Its birth was improbable, its life brief, and we may not see its like for many years.
The scenario is something like a Buñuelian joke mixed with Polanski paranoia, although the film develops its own crazy identity as it goes on. Wifey Jennifer Lawrence is dealing with a flood of unwanted guests who treat the home she’s trying to refurbish as a bed and breakfast; her husband, grateful for the distraction from his writer’s block, encourages them. It doesn’t help her shaky mental outlook that she’s chugging some sort of urine-colored alka selzer and hallucinating hearts clogging the toilet. Early on, mother! plays like a black comedy, with the audience laughing each time the doorbell rings and a new guest arrives. This black humor contrasts with ongoing gynecological horror imagery: a vaginal bloodstain on her hardwood floor, with the blood trickles tracing a Fallopian diagram on the walls of Jennifer’s womblike basement. The dreamlike flow of the first hour that quickly escalates into the nightmarish once a pregnancy arrives at the same time her poet husband publishes a poetry sensation that brings a horde of cultlike fans to their remote homestead. Over-the-top apocalyptic chaos follows, with a religious wrap-up that left some audience members scoffing out loud. Subtle and focused mother! ain’t; weird, it is.
mother! is susceptible to multiple interpretations, which may be a problem in a movie that appears to aspire to allegory rather than mystification. Apparently, Aronofsky intends the audience to read the film as an environmental parable about Mother Earth. But it can also be seen as a metaphor for fear of procreation (the strangers who sew chaos in the house act just like unruly children), and at the end it becomes a (heavy-handed) Christian allegory (with Lawrence as Mother Mary, paying an even heavier price for humanity’s sins than her son does). And all along, with its poet/God hero, it’s simultaneously playing as an allegory for the artist, and for the way the audience appropriates His work and gives it their own interpretation—yeah, there’s some heavy meta there.
mother! is already infamous for its divisiveness. It was booed by audiences at the Venice Film Festival and CinemaScore audiences gave it a rare “F” rating, while critics have graced it with generally favorable reviews (68% on Rotten Tomatoes at this time, through the usual dissenters are particularly hyperbolic). 2009’s Antichrist (which also refused to give its parent protagonists proper names) may have been the last movie to create a big a chasm between those championing a film as an audacious triumph and those dismissing it as pretentious twaddle. One thing is for sure: simply dropping a superstar like Lawrence into your surrealist movie won’t make mainstream audiences embrace its uncomfortable weirdness. But J-Law should earn a lot of artistic credibility and respect from a role that was quite a bit riskier than Natalie Portman‘s relatively sane and reserved turn in Black Swan.
“I do not work with intentions… That has nothing to do with freedom of the imagination… My preference is certainly for subsequent interpretation rather than intention. In Little Otik, the child devours its ‘parents.’ Otik is the product of their desire, their rebellion against nature. This is not a child in the real sense of the world, but the materialization of desire, of a rebellion. That is the tragic dimension of the human destiny. It is impossible to live without rebelling against the human lot. That is the proper subject of freedom.”–Jan Svankamjer, 2006 interview with Peter Hames
FEATURING: Kristina Adamcová, Veronika Zilková, Jan Hartl
PLOT: Karel and Bozena are an infertile couple obsessed with becoming pregnant; one day, as a joke, Karel brings his wife a tree stump that looks a little like a child, but the woman immediately begins treating it as if it were a real baby. Bozena goes so far as to fake a pregnancy, and the husband is shocked when the piece of wood actually comes to life. Parenthood proves difficult when they discover in that the wooden child needs to be fed and has an insatiable craving for red meat; meanwhile, their sexually curious ten-year old neighbor is also obsessed with little Otik and begins to suspect his secret…
The story is a modern adaptation of the Eastern European fairy tale “Otesánek,” as collected by the folklorist K.J. Erben. The original fable is recounted in a storybook-animated film-within-a-film.
Jan Svankmajer’s late wife, the painter Eva Švankmajerová, had illustrated “Otesánek” for a children’s book in the 1970s.
Per Svankmajer, in Czech the word “otesánek” (which is derived from the verb “to hew” plus a diminutive “-ánek” which denotes a child) is used for a person “who devours and digests everything (not only food).”
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Crazy-eyed Bozena breastfeeding a log in maternal bliss—particularly when the camera zooms in to show a closeup of Otik hungrily suctioning milk through his stump. (As a footnote, one of Little Otik‘s iconic images isn’t actually in the movie. A bizarre still of Alzbetka licking a fried egg was featured prominently in the Otik‘s promotional material, but that precise shot does not appear in the film).
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This modernized fairy-tale adaptation about an insatiable man-eating tree stump baby is actually Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer’s most conventional and accessible story (by far). Of course, in Svankmajer’s world, a conventional narrative includes scenes where street vendors fish infants out of tanks, wrap them in newspaper and sell them to passersby. There’s something seminal about this freaky film that mixes black comedy with dashes of horror and flecks of surrealism; it’s an excellent, comprehensible-yet-mysterious entry-level bizarre film for the neophyte weirdster.
PLOT: A teenager falls in with a group of anti-abortionists in her quest to become pregnant.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: As if the plot isn’t off-beat enough, Palindromes‘s teenage porotagonist is played by a variety of actors of different ages, sizes, races, and even genders.
COMMENTS: The standout feature of Palindromes is the unorthodox casting of a series of different actresses (and one actor) in the role of Aviva Victor. The variety of thespians allows Solondz to express the evolution of Aviva’s self-image, physically reflecting changes in her emotional state during the movie. When we first meet Aviva, she is played by a young African-American girl who wears her emotions on her sleeves and in her facial expressions. She is the only child to middle class parents (Barkin and Masur) living in an anonymous suburb in the Northeast United States. Horrified at the probable suicide of her cousin Dawn and alienated by the material nature of her mother’s love, Aviva becomes obsessed with the idea of having lots of babies to ensure she has someone to love her. Then, as a Caucasian brunette in her early teens, she has an ill-advised encounter with the son of a family friend, and gets pregnant. As a reedy, red-haired, slightly older girl, she strenuously resists but eventually accedes to getting an abortion. As a more confident and more attractive brunette, she runs away with the help of a truck driver, with whom she has sex in the hopes of once again getting pregnant. Abandoned by the truck driver, she wanders through wilderness in the shape of a teenage boy and then is discovered—now as a large, older African–American woman—by the driven and very Christian Mama Sunshine, who runs an orphanage for children with medical infirmities. Here Aviva is least like herself: in a completely alien environment, she has to lie about her name and her past to fit in, and her self-doubt and anxiety are apparent in her magnified size, awkward movement, and change in race. The plot unfolds from there involving more pedophilia, a quest to assassinate the doctor who aborted her fetus, and a shootout in room 11 of a seedy motel, with Aviva switching from shape to shape, becoming more assertive and mature. At the point where she feels most grown-up, she returns to her family as a world-weary, bedraggled 20-something waif (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She holds her own in an existential debate with her older cousin, Mark, and easily wins arguments with her parents. But, as the title of the movie suggests, things come around: Aviva meets up with the boy who got her pregnant to begin with, reverts mentally through the chain of actors who have portrayed her, until she is once again the vulnerable, out-of-place, emotionally needy little black girl. As seductive as the message is that everything eventually returns to its beginning state, palindrome-like, some things in the film are irreversible: death, certain operations, and murder among them. In the end, it’s these things that will eventually shape the person Aviva will eventually become, but she’s not yet become them yet.
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“The doll character had been working its way into my drawings since 1990. A lot of these things evolved from drawings. The drawing is coming from the subconscious, really, so you don’t really know why, or say ‘why am I drawing it’?”–Christiane Cegavske on the DVD commentary to Blood Tea and Red String
DIRECTED BY: Christiane Cegavske
FEATURING: With one minor exception, all characters are silent animated puppets
PLOT: A group of aristocratic white mice commission rodentlike creatures with beaks (called the “Creatures Who Dwell Under the Oak”) to create a doll for them, but once the puppet is fashioned the Creatures refuse to give it up; instead, they revere it and sew an egg they find floating in a creek inside its torso. The mice steal the doll and take it to their lair, so the Creatures set out on a journey to recover it. Along the way they meet a frog sorcerer and a spider with a human face, and everything changes when the egg inside the doll hatches.
The film took 13 years to make, with Cegavske animating perhaps 10 seconds a day. Many of the models and effects used show up in the director’s 1992 short Blood and Sunflowers.
Cegavske intends for Blood Tea and Red String to be part of a trilogy, and in 2011 she announced the second part of the project, titled Seed in the Sand. She estimates this installment will take five years to complete.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Blood Tea is bizarre throughout, and many will be attracted to the psychedelic splashiness of the sequence where the Oak Dwellers eat hallucinogenic berries and see morphing pink and green leaf patterns overlaid on the courtyard garden. For my money, though, things are at the weirdest when we climb inside the dark mouse hole and watch the well-dressed vermin pour bloody tea onto the lips of the lifeless doll while their skull-headed pet raven looks on.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A dialogue-free stop-motion animated fable done in the style of Jan Svankmajer, but with a darkly feminine spin, Blood Tea and Red String gently folds surrealism into its fairy tale structure to create a weirdly compelling world. It’s an inverted Alice, told from the perspective of mutant rodents, depraved white mice, and mystical frogs.