Tag Archives: Religion

LIST CANDIDATE: THE CATECHISM CATACLYSM (2011)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Robert Longstreet

PLOT: A goofy priest who seems more concerned with funny stories and YouTube videos than Jesus Christ sets out on a canoe trip with his childhood icon Robbie, a musician who dated his sister in high school.  As they paddle down the river, more details about their history are revealed, and things get really weird when they meet fellow travelers posing as characters from Huckleberry Finn.

Still from The Catechism Cataclysm


WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It starts off as a funny, somewhat quirky canoe trip, relying on dialogue and a few offbeat stories to entertain its audience. But then it gets weird. Really weird. I’d say the last 20 minutes are weird enough to make up for the comparative normalcy of the preceding 50.

COMMENTS: When the effervescent Father Billy first meets up with his middle school idol at a roadside diner, he accidentally drops his bible (which he gets autographed by musicians) in a diarrhea-filled toilet bowl. This sets the stage for a story that is deceptively average on the surface, but delightfully deranged underneath, finally showing its true colors during the final sequence. Their journey is peppered with some strange side-stories, from a heat-packing granny to a suicidal businessman who can’t die, along with some effectively ominous filming techniques and a heavy metal soundtrack that humorously clashes with the bucolic river landscape. While there are flashes of weirdness throughout, nothing truly prepares the viewer for the big Weird payoff at the end, which I will not spoil for you.

Father Billy is a well-meaning goofball with an oblivious, clingy personality, and it’s never actually clear why he would become a priest—an occupation that takes remarkable dedication and sacrifice—in the first place. He seems perfectly content to sit around listening to 80’s metal and drinking milk. His dips into unpriestly behavior (lying to his superior, drinking beer, etc) coincide with dire circumstances that should be enough to completely shake his faith. Steve Little puts in an offbeat performance, making Father Billy just slightly creepy enough for viewers to question exactly what is going on here. In contrast, Longstreet’s portrayal of Robbie is so open and believable, he stands as a pillar of ordinariness and often represents the audience’s own reactions to Billy’s off-putting characteristics.

The Catechism Cataclysm is a difficult film to encapsulate. It’s a mish-mash of high school reunion-esque reflection, Catholic introspection, fascinating urban legend storytelling, and off-the-walls absurdity that winds its way into an enjoyable, funny, decidedly memorable experience. Overall, it’s an impressive show of irreverence and eccentricity from a director with a foundation in mumblecore.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

A dryly absurd road comedy with the caveat being that they core duo are floating down a river rather than driving along a road… This is down home Americana re-imagined as gradually escalating dementia with a dark yet still sweetly naive edge.”–Todd Brown, Twitch

LIST CANDIDATE: VALHALLA RISING (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Nicolas Winding Refn

FEATURING: , Maarten Stevenson

PLOT: A mute, one-eyed slave escapes from his Viking captors and joins a group of Christians sailing to the Holy Land to join the Crusades.

Still from Valhalla Rising (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  After a leisurely beginning that gets by on atmosphere, Valhalla rises to some low-budget, low-key weirdness in its third act.  But although the movie’s wonderfully shot and recorded and full of ominous portent, the thick symbolism is so open-ended that it becomes empty, leaving little to no impact in the end.

COMMENTS:  With Valhalla Rising, Nicolas Winding Refn appears to be trying to answer the question “what happens when you make a religious allegory, but leave out the allegory part?”  After triumphing with Bronson, a heavily-stylized, slightly weird movie built around a larger than life testosterone tanker, Refn turns to minimalistic cinematics to mysticize another masculine archetype.  Valhalla Rising arrives as a weirder, but weaker, outing, because the mute tattooed warrior slave One Eye is not as sharply drawn as Charlie Bronson.  It was clear what Bronson wanted—to become the most notorious prisoner in Britain, no matter how many beatings he had to take and how many hours he had to spend in solitary to get the title—and his mad obsession drove the film.  One Eye remains a mystery throughout; after escaping from captivity in the first act, he has no agenda for the rest of the film, but drifts from continent to continent with the tide.  He has blood-soaked visions of the future and builds a cairn; because he has nothing better to do with his time, he hooks up with a band of Christian crusaders heading for the Holy Land.  These people, at least, have motivations—after their ship gets lost in the doldrums and drifts to a land covered in unspoiled primeval forest, their leader decides to establish a New Jerusalem and convert the savages.  This development leads Refn into to a mini-tribute to Herzog‘s Aguirre, The Wrath of God, as the Crusaders travel downriver while being picked off by unseen savages firing arrows from the shore.   But the focus remains on the inscrutable One Eye, who travels with the suspicious Christians (who admire and fear him for his martial abilities), but he remains unreachable and aloof.  He strikes with deadly force when they threaten the closest thing he has to a friend, the boy Are; in later reels, he chops some of them up for no clearly explained reason.  At the end of the movie One Eye turns into an improbable Christ figure, and presumably shuffles off to Valhalla.  Portraying the scarred slave, who between bloodlettings spends most of the movie staring at distant horizons with an unreadable expression, as an ambiguous figure apart from humanity is a deliberate choice; but making the main character a mute cipher with no overriding motivation is a gamble.  With no narrative drive, the story often lags, symbolized by a long section where the crew dehydrates and lies about listlessly on the ship’s deck when the expedition is trapped inside misty doldrums on the Atlantic Ocean.  Fortunately, Refn creates a tremendous atmosphere of foreboding beauty, full of images of weary, weathered men framed against verdant mountains and a keening soundtrack, to carry us through when the story limps along.  The mood combines Sergio Leone’s sparse machismo with Andrei Tarkovsky‘s quiet mysticism, and if the story fails to draw us in, at least the scenery is spectacular.

The Norse deity Odin, chief of the Gods and lord of Valhalla, the afterlife’s feast hall for warriors, is often known as “the Wanderer.”  He legendarily tore out his own eye in order to gain the wisdom of the gods.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Mr. Refn, who can pull off stylish brutality (in the ‘Pusher’ films and ‘Bronson’), shows no knack for the kind of visionary, hallucinatory image making that would render ‘Valhalla Rising’ memorable.”–Mike Hale, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SEA OF DUST (2008)

DIRECTED BY: Scott Bunt

FEATURING: Troy Holland, Sarah Dauber, , Ingrid Pitt

PLOT: Prester John, a mythological crusader king, possesses the bodies of 19th century

Still from Sea of Dust

Germans to manifest his sadistic religious ideology in this world.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTSea of Dust is a tough case: it’s definitely weird, but at the same time it’s neither polished enough to be counted as one of the best weird movies of all time, nor bad enough to earn the so bad it’s weird designation that could get it on to the List through the back door.  The movie is worth a cautious recommendation for those who can overlook its ample flaws—bad acting, stilted dialogue, and an anti-religion message delivered with just a tad more subtlety than Religulous—and just want to soak in the b-movie weirdness of the “WTF?” third act.

COMMENTS:  Much of the time, Sea of Dust is like a Hammer Studios period movie acted by community theater thespians, with the addition of spurting gore effects supplied by exploding-head maestro Tom Savini.  As you watch the introduction where a rich landowner rejects a young medical student’s pleas for the hand of his daughter, your first thought will probably be “poorly acted and scripted.” That’s a shame, because the film gets better as the weirdness builds in later reels, and you may find yourself drawn into the movie if you can overlook the acting and dialogue and make it through the first half.  In the actors’ defense, it’s hard to sound convincing when you’re asked to deliver lines like “I really do apologize, I’ve never tried to kill someone before.  It’s very unlike me, I wouldn’t want you to think I behave like this all the time” just the way a 19th century German peasant girl who just been possessed by the spirit of a mythological crusader king would.  (An even more challenging line delivery comes when the hero is washed up unconscious on a beach and awakened by a fisherman who inserts a wicked hook attached to a staff through his chin and drags him a few feet through the surf: mildly perturbed, he whines, “Was that really necessary? You poked a hole in me!”)  If these descriptions make it sound like Sea of Dust is the work of incompetents, the look of the film belies that impression: the photography, lighting, costuming (lots of waistcoats and bodices), believable period sets, and editing are all strictly pro.  Even the special effects, while obviously cheap, are effective: there are multiple gore effects (an exploding head, a pitchfork through the head), and there’s a fluid sequence where a steadicam rushes through forests and into other dimensions where a beautiful siren awaits, and another one where the camera enters a maggot-ridden brain through a puncture wound in the head.  Even more importantly, for our purposes, there’s a lot of imaginative weirdness in the movie’s second half to recommend it.  We get multiple flagellations, two finger-sucking scenes, a crucified Tom Savini with dilated pupils, surgery on a hollow Ingrid Pitt, a cat-woman “harpy” in a black latex bodysuit who urinates on torture victims, and an ending that involves dreams inside of dreams and should leave the viewer well confused about who has triumphed.  At any rate, you have to give Sea of Dust credit: the film is overambitious, which is almost always a better thing than being underambitious.  A movie’s reach should exceed its grasp.

The film’s villain, Prester John, was a “real” legendary king during the Crusades; he was said to rule a Christian kingdom to the east of the Holy Land.  In writer/director Bunt’s vision he is a blatantly fictional creation of the kings of Europe during the crusades to lure volunteers into the wars.  In the film, people’s belief in Prester John causes him to take on a real existence, though he can only effect this world by possessing the souls of others.  Belief in Prester acts like a zombie virus in the affected villagers, but what’s unexplained is why the king would have a Sadean worldview, proclaiming pain is “the most delicious sensation” and perverting the Christian message into one that seeks to maximize suffering and therefore views inflicting cruelty as a holy act.  No orthodox Christians appear to oppose the evil; the good guys are rational Enlightenment scientists, men of medicine.  It’s not exactly what you would call a subtle or fair-minded allegory.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the film’s budgetary drawbacks and Bunt’s inexperience actually work in SEA OF DUST’s favor. The quick shifts in tone and occasional awkward transitions contribute to the movie’s dream-logic quality, adding a surface layer of Lovecraftian surrealism.”–Mike Watt, Fangoria (DVD)

7. EL TOPO (1970)

AKA The Mole (literal translation)

“Q: You’re creating this story right now.

A: Yes, this very moment. It may not be true, but it’s beautiful.”–Alejandro Jodorowsky in “Conversations with Jodorowsky”

Must SeeWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Alejandro Jodorowsky

PLOT: El Topo, a figure dressed in black and carrying his nude son on horseback behind him, uses his supernatural shooting ability to free a town from the rule of a sadistic Colonel.  He then abandons his son for the Colonel’s Woman, who convinces him to ride deep into the desert to face off against four mystical gunfighters.  All of the gunfighters die, but El Topo is betrayed, shot, and dragged into a cave by a society of deformed people, who ask the outlaw turned pacifist to help them build a tunnel so they can escape to a dusty western town run by degenerate religious fascists.

el-topo

BACKGROUND:

  • El Topo is considered to be the first “midnight movie,” the first movie to be screened in theaters almost exclusively after 12 AM.  Although the heyday of the midnight movie has past, it was a clever marketing gimmick that stressed the unusual nature of the film and positioned El Topo as an event rather than just another flick.
  • El Topo was famously championed and promoted by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
  • Due to an acrimonious dispute over ownership rights between Jodorowsky and Allen Klein, the film was withdrawn from circulation for 30 years, during which time it could only be seen on bootlegged VHS copies.  The scarcity of screenings vaulted El Topo‘s already powerful reputation into a legendary one.  Jodorowsky and Klein reconciled in 2004 and the film had a legal DVD release in 2005.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: El Topo is a continuous stream of unforgettable images; any frame chosen at random inflames the imagination.  My personal favorite is the lonsghot after El Topo kills third master gunfighter, where his body lies bleeding in his own watering hole while the rest of the landscape is littered with rabbit corpses.   The iconic image, however, is  El Topo riding off on horseback with a naked child sitting behind him, holding a black umbrella over his head.  This image is particularly representative because it shows not only Jodorowsky’s gift for composition, but his penchant for shamelessly borrowing from other sources of inspiration: the concept is pinched from the most surreal moment of Sergio Leone’s classic Spaghetti Western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  In the first scene, a man clad in black carrying an umbrella rides through an endless desert waste. Behind him in the saddle is a male child, naked except for a cowboy hat. The man stops his horse by a lonely hitching post in the sand, ties the umbrella to the post, and hands the boy a teddy bear and a locket and a photograph. The man says, “Today you are seven years old. You are a man. Bury your first toy and your mother’s picture.” He pulls out a flute and plays while the naked child follows his instructions. What makes El Topo weird is that this is the most normal and comprehensible thing that happens the film.

Trailer for El Topo

COMMENTS: In Judges 14, Samson (the Hebrew version of Hercules) is attacked by a Continue reading 7. EL TOPO (1970)