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BOOK REVIEW: “GIRAFFES ON HORSEBACK SALAD” (2019, JOSH FRANK, TIM HEIDECKER, & MANUELA PERTEGA)

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The , even at their most mediocre, can do no wrong; Salvador Dalí, even at his most posthumous, can also do no wrong. The premise of Josh Frank’s adaptation is simple: to bring to life a rejected film treatment by one of Surrealism’s most famous practitioners intended to feature one of cinema’s most famous comedy troupes. The execution is straightforward, but took some years and considerable R&D before coming to life as a movie-length graphic novel. “Giraffes on Horseback Salad” is an impossible movie premise translated into a vibrant and often hilarious comic.

Two obvious difficulties presented themselves to Frank, Heidecker, & Pertega (a team that could have been a Marxist law firm): doing justice to two differently towering cultural icons. In the mid- to late-1930s, young Salvador was a political and artistic refugee. This quirky Spaniard developed a major “bro-crush” on Harpo Marx–going so far as to send him a full-scale harp made of cellophane-wrapped silverware and strung with barbed wire. Dalí regarded Harpo as a living, breathing Surrealist—not a member of the movement, but rather an actual Surrealist objet d’art, someone who would always subvert the norm, and who would always have the best, most illogical solution in his raggedy coat pocket.

How the two met (more than once) is explored in “Giraffes on Horseback Salad.” Suffice it to say, they got along famously, and hashed out a movie premise. That premise? “Giraffes” is actually more plot-heavy than most Marx Brothers movies, involving a wunderkind Spanish businessman (“Jimmy”), recently moved to New York City, who falls in love with the “Surrealist Woman.” In her employ are two chauffeurs/henchmen: Groucho and Chico Marx. As Jimmy pursues the Surrealist Woman’s affections, Groucho and Chico help him out. Silliness, subversion, and Surrealism ensue.

The challenge behind Josh Frank’s foray into theoretical cinema (to woefully misuse that term) is daunting, but he delivers, with screen-writing assistance from “Tim & Eric”‘s , and the wild visual stylings of Manuela Pertega. The “movie” plays like a bit of fan-fiction, admittedly, but it is skillfully wrought. Groucho’s and Chico’s exchanges may not be their best work (that, as far as I’m concerned, will always be found in Animal Crackers), but it isn’t their worst, and they always sound on paper they way they sounded in their movies. That is no small feat: Frank and Heidecker deliver the Marx goods; in parallel, dead Dalí and Pertega deliver the Surrealist goods. With so many goods delivered, it’s no surprise that the final result is… well, good. They even created a swinging period soundtrack to accompany the story.

In the interests of full disclosure, this wild ride of lines and lingo has virtually no Harpo in it—his identity is a “secret” slowly revealed as another character melts from a high-strung, but yearning-to-be-free [redacted]. I personally found this to be no problem: he was always my least favorite brother. However, I am not one to second-guess one of the 20th-century’s greatest artists, so hurrah for Harpo, hurrah for Salvador, and three chairs for the law firm of Frank, Heidecker, & Pertega.

8*. BIG MAN JAPAN (2007)

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Dai-Nihonjin

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Hitoshi Matsumoto, Tomoji Hasegawa, Taichi Yazaki

PLOT: An offscreen interviewer asks questions of middle-aged Masaru Daisatô, who grows into the giant “Big Man Japan” to fight various monsters who plague the country, as part of a documentary on the superhero’s fading popularity. Far from being honored for protecting the nation from kaiju attacks, Masaru is suffering from low ratings in his late-night time slot, is going through a divorce, and his house is covered in graffiti and vandalized whenever he causes collateral damage. When he flees from one particularly tough monster, his reputation is further damaged, and his retired grandfather (a previous Big Man Japan) leaves the nursing home to take on the kaiju himself.

Still from Big Man Japan (2007)

BACKGROUND:

  • Previously known in Japan as a comedian, Big Man Japan was Hitoshi Matsumoto’s first feature film.
  • The film spent five years in development and took a year to shoot.
  • Big Man Japan has frequently been suggested/recommended by readers over the years. Most recently, it was runner-up in our 2020 Apocrypha tournament.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The endlessly inventive giant monsters—with creepy human faces pasted on them via the black magic of CGI—are Big Man Japan‘s key visual motif. The Stink Monster, who looks like a cross between a squid and a fleshy flower petal, doesn’t seem like the weirdest kaiju in the stable, until a second Stink Monster shows up to do a wild mating dance that makes him look like a spastic ballerina on speed trying to get lucky at the disco on Saturday night.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Combover kaiju; Stink Monster mating dance

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It plays like a genetically modified experiment in corssbreeding Spinal Tap with a late-era Godzilla monster mash, which is strange enough; Big Man Japan is not satisfied with it’s own oddness yet, however, so it takes another unanticipated turn into lunacy in the final act.


U.S. release trailer for Big Man Japan

COMMENTS: Thoroughly committed to its absurd premise, with Continue reading 8*. BIG MAN JAPAN (2007)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE AERIAL (2007)

La antena

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DIRECTED BY: Esteban Sapir

FEATURING: Rafael Ferro, Sol Moreno, Alejandro Urdapilleta, Jonathan Sandor, Julieta Cardinali

PLOT: Mr. TV’s grip on the city is nearly complete, since he controls the only citizen known to be able to speak; however, not only does he want to control the people’s only voice, he wants to rob them of their words as well.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: A scattered analogy is the easiest way to argue this: The Aerial is Guy Maddin directs Alex ProyasDark City with a comic-book noir-Expressionist flair in a silent city whose populace communicates in colliding sub-, super-, and fore-titles.

COMMENTS: I generally don’t like my sociopolitical allegories to slap me so hard across the face, but The Aerial can feel free to slap me all it wants to. As you might infer from that mental image, Esteban Sapir’s movie is incredibly heavy-handed. It drops symbols like hot rocks (rocks so hot that, at one point, there’s a blistering contrast between some broadcasting baddies and their swastika-shaped device and the broadcasting goodies with their Star of David-shaped device). It’s overt in its rhetoric: “They have taken our voices, but we still have our words.” And even if the evil “Dr. Y” had a bigger mouth-enlarger-screen attached to him, it couldn’t have screamed “NAZI SCIENTIST!” any louder. But at this point I am hopeful that you’re wondering, “Just what is going on?”

What’s going on: Mr. TV lords over a voiceless city. The only person who can speak—“The Voice”—is controlled by Mr. TV and his ubiquitous media concern (TV billboards cover the metropolis, and the populace is fed with “TV Food”). The protagonist (credited only as “The Inventor”) loses his job with the TV monopoly after losing another balloon-man advertising sign (which is just what it sounds like). When a parcel containing “eyes” is delivered to the wrong address (and is conveniently received by the Inventor’s daughter), we learn that The Voice’s eyeless son can also speak. Meanwhile, Mr. TV conspires with crazy, creepy scientist Dr. Y to use The Voice to extract everyone’s words.

By now you probably see why I am feeling forgiving. Plus, the movie has a constant visual *pop*. Going into it, I wondered at the “very little dialogue” remark in its description. That is a bald-faced lie. There’s plenty of dialogue, and it is All Over The Screen. Not being a Spanish-speaker, I read the subtitles, but these were subtitles for everywhere-titles. They moved like hands on a watch, they were completed with “o”s from a smoke ring, and they were hidden behind fingers before a reveal. This town, though voiceless, is full of communication: the citizens read these words that are “spoken”. Even the blind boy “reads lips” by feeling the text. This gimmick was astounding to behold, and marvelously executed.

The rest of the movie’s aesthetic is just as lively, feeling at times like something from Dziga Vertov after he slammed back a samovar of strong tea. The visual mash-up (piano hands playing a typewriter while a ballerina in a snow globe desperately maneuvers what looked like a DDR challenge, for example) is consistent throughout, and although patently artificial, feels natural. Nothing looks cheap, and the film is helped in no small part by the actors as they deftly walk the perilous tightrope of Expressionism and film noir styles. I still feel The Aerial‘s energy, and so must stop myself. Suffice it to say, I wish more moralistic beatings were this pleasurable to suffer through.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It has a deeply weird story that appears to have a number of interpretations, or variations on a theme: the iniquities of media mind-control… Try as I might, I couldn’t make friends with La Antena, despite its distinctiveness and self-possession. There was something whimsical and indulgent about it, and its convoluted, flimsy narrative – oddly forgettable – seemed to have no traction.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ESCAPE FROM THE ‘LIBERTY’ CINEMA (1990)

Ucieczka z kina ‘Wolnosc’

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DIRECTED BY: Wojciech Marczewski

FEATURING: Janusz Gajos, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Teresa Marczewska, Piotr Fronczewski, Wladyslaw Kowalski

PLOT: There’s a problem at the Liberty Cinema screening of a new movie, and it isn’t projector or sound issues: the film’s cast has decided to boycott their performance on screen, leaving the head censor nonplussed, particularly as there’s a concurrent outbreak of spontaneous opera singing afflicting the city’s populace.

COMMENTS: The world’s weariest apparatchik is having a bad day. His head is pounding, his hand is cut from a broken drinking glass, his stomach is wrenching after consuming contaminated tap water, his assistant eats cotton candy at a staggering rate despite admonitions otherwise, and his secretary informs him that actors in the film being screened at a local cinema have gotten stroppy and refuse to perform. What is our hero to do? True to his background, he forbids it, categorically: he forbids the theater manager’s sudden singing, he forbids the actors’ boycott, and most emphatically of all, he forbids the eating of cotton candy.

But it’s in vain.

Escape from the ‘Liberty’ Cinema was made and released shortly after the collapse of the Soviet-backed government in Poland, but is set during the bureaucratic death throes of that regime. When news of the screen actors’ rebellion reaches him, the local Communist party boss insists that the film play on—to sold-out shows, no less—but without attendees. “There will be cinema, but no viewers,” because if the Party likes anything, it’s being a bastion of (legitimate) art. If it likes two things, it’s hitting quotas, and so the money for the sold-out shows is extracted from a welfare fund manager who wants a spot on the local Party council. Deterioration—of the buildings, of the social fabric, of the soul—permeates the setting. The city’s denizens are so worn down they can’t even bother to rebel any more, leaving Art to don the mantle of subversion: either through the film’s recalcitrant performers, or the citizen’s spontaneous outbursts of opera, against their will.

Despite its full-throated cynicism, Escape is, somehow, a comedy. Our censor-hero is an eminently relatable character. As he witnesses the district’s descent into art-house subversion, his ailments alleviate, and he even gets in some laughs chatting with the performers on display at the ‘Liberty’. The projectionist practices poor English, seemingly responding to job (or consulate?) interview questions running through his mind as he prepares the reels, again and again, three times a day, to screen for an empty house. The cotton-candy chomping assistant receives elocution lessons from the in-movie movie’s leading lady, eventually wrapping his mouth around the correct pronunciation of, “Give me back the coat!”

Writer/director Marczewski mercilessly skewers authorities—even raising the specter of Poland’s complicity with the Nazis’ genocide—but simultaneously loves each of his film’s characters. I can imagine he may even have written himself in as the wunderkind critic sent from Warsaw. Seated in the front row, this impish boy of a man beams with pride when he shows off “true” cinema (appropriately, Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo) to the Communist functionaries. Beyond even his successful social commentary, Marczewski somehow manages to meld utmost cynicism with tender pathos.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A very clever absurdist comedy that can be enjoyed either with or without its sharp social and political commentary…”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (DVD)

CAPSULE: “THE MIDNIGHT GOSPEL” (2020)

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CREATED BY: Pendleton Ward, Duncan Trussell

FEATURING: Voices of Duncan Trussell, Phil Hendrie, various guests

PLOT: Clancy lives by a run-down farm in a run-down house and uses a run-down multiverse simulator to find interviewees for his spacecast.

Still from The Midnight Gospel, Season 1, Ep. 1

COMMENTS: One of the first things you’ll notice when beginning Netflix’s new series The Midnight Gospel is that it is not of this Earth, at least not of a specific time and place. The landscapes, décor, and props evoke everything from ’50s sci-fi novels to hippie chic to ’90s CD-ROM games, with a color scheme that blasts through it all with as much brightness you can get away with while still being easy on the eyes. One of the second things you’ll notice is that the show’s host—and co-creator—has the voice of a “woke”-but-laid-back1 early 20-something hipster; this voice is, apparently, provided by a forty-six year old comedian. And that, dear reader, is the full extent of my research for this show.

The main focus of each episode is the conversation between Clancy Gilroy (Duncan Trussell) and his special guest for that adventure, but I’d like to talk first about The Midnight Gospel’s visual appeal. The drawings have a meditative quality. The line work is all soft; even the corners feel soft. While it never quite spills over into “organic”, the movement of characters (and despite this television show’s origins, there’s plenty going on on-screen) is somewhere between easy-going and fatalistic. I bring up that word, “fatalistic”, because more likely than not, Clancy and his guests will suffer through some sort of massacre or dismemberment (for example, the calm conversational tones of Dr. Drew Kinsky as the “little president” of an Earth doomed by a zombie apocalypse contrasts amusingly with the nonstop violence in the background; soft-looking violence, of course). Whether being gored by undead hordes, or traveling through a meat processing plant as the meat being processed, there’s a happy squish for the eye to go along with the philosophical/sociological discussion dominating the dialogue.

When you boil it down, The Midnight Gospel is a podcast between a somewhat enlightened, somewhat leftist fellow (I almost wrote “young man” from remembering his voice, but no: he’s forty-six) as he speaks with all manner of intellectuals about drugs, life, death, and so on. That isn’t to say that there’s a strong demarcation between the conversation and the visuals. During a discussion of drugs, “little president” is busy defending the White House against invading zombies. At the meat processing plant, a different guest has his eye removed and consumed by one of that world’s clown children, exclaiming, “That kid just took my fucking eye!”

If you aren’t interested in informed-but-meandering discussions, you will find this cartoon rather trying. If, however, you are looking for a little consciousness-expanding conversation paired with some casually-extreme outlandish visual back-drops, then you are in for a treat. I have already admitted that I’ve done virtually no background research for this; I’ll admit now that I’m only two episodes in—but that’s because I couldn’t wait to write this. I’ll be heading back to Netflix to view the rest right now…

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“These eight hallucinogenic explorations into life, love, death, and everything in between are unlike anything else on television. I promise you. One part podcast, one part Daliesque fantasy, this is a series that’s looking to rewire your brain and expand your mind.”–Umapagan Ampikaipakan, Goggler (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE WOLF HOUSE (2018)

La casa lobo

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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: SPIRITS OF THE AIR, GREMLINS OF THE CLOUDS (1987)

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DIRECTED BY: Alex Proyas

FEATURING: Norman Boyd, Michael Lake, Rhys Davis

PLOT: A drifter is escaping his pursuers by heading north, but a vertical mountain range blocks his path;  he encounters an eccentric pair of siblings, and the trio plan to head beyond the pass in a homemade flying machine.

Still from Spirits of the air, gremlins of the clouds (1987)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Surreal music-video visuals combine with stage-like theatrics in this odd little story of a crippled inventor, his child-like sister, and a stranger on the run. The post-apocalyptic milieu is both sand-swept and candy-colored, and the claustrophobic atmosphere feels about to burst into the wild blue yonder.

COMMENTS: Judging from the natural backdrop in Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds, Australia’s outback is a combination of desolate sand and technicolor hues. As such, it’s custom-designed for post-apocalyptic wasteland movies, and Proyas takes advantage of this nigh-unreality to great effect. But not satisfied with a vision of lifeless wind and dust, he places eccentrics lifted straight from David Lynch onto his barren stage, in the process creating one of the most eccentric and eerie melodramas to spring forth from celluloid.

The remnants of humanity are, it seems, scattered about like so much paranoid dirt. When a wanderer dressed in black (going by the name “Smith”) appears on her homestead’s outskirts, Betty Crabtree (dressed in dime-store Kabuki regalia, and playing an over-trinketed two-string violin) seeks her brother to warn him of a coming devil. Brother Felix sports the wild hair of a mad inventor or a crazed hermit, and is confined to a wheelchair seemingly designed by Tim Burton during his “blue period.” Felix is eccentric, but also a genius, and is eager for Smith’s company and assistance. Betty is having none of this newcomer, and makes her hostility increasingly clear: first with adamant Bible quotations, then with a hand-scrawled note reading, “Leave now, or you die!,” and finally with a painted message covering the homestead’s workshop exterior, “Go home or burn in Hell.” Smith does not go home; instead, for reasons of his own, he agrees to help Felix build the impossible.

The Crabtree compound is like a survivalist’s Bible camp. The pair have stocked their basement with countless shelves of Heinz baked beans (the company received a shout-out in the credits) and hung crosses from every wall and support beam (we learn that the siblings’ father is he used to be religious—but then stopped). Other unlikely touches convey this future reality. Felix’s prized possession is a history of early flight, and he wistfully calls attention to the trees in the photographs’ backgrounds and the “nice, clean clothes” everyone wears. The Popol Voh-style soundtrack and dissociative camera tricks offset this grounding in reality. Proyas interrupts medium shots of action—such as the strange meal (of baked beans) that follows Smith’s arrival—with altogether too-close close-ups. And it seems that he intermittently removed frames of film, creating a stilted, jagged appearance in the flow of machines and people.

With a cast of three people, Proyas creates a grounded human world. With a solitary household as a location, he shows this world to be foreign to our experience. Like Felix with his mad dream to fly, Proyas (all of twenty-four when he made this) defies the doubters. Using practically nothing, he firmly establishes himself as a cinematic visionary. There is certainly something personal in this tale of staggering success against oppressive odds.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a genuine shame the melding of big budgets and Proyas has never really gelled, possibly because the larger the budgets got, the more Proyas discovered what he couldn’t do with them out of responsibility for making the film as palatable to general audiences as the studio demanded. Because, dammit, Proyas has an amazing eye, one evident from his first feature film…Proyas’ eye for imagery is in fine form, and it’s not difficult at all to find the line that connects SPIRITS OF THE AIR to DARK CITY..” -Jon Abrams, Daily Grindhouse