Tag Archives: Self-Indulgent

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CHAPPAQUA (1966)

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DIRECTED BY: Conrad Rooks

FEATURING: Conrad Rooks, Jean-Louis Barrault, William S. Burroughs, Paula Pritchett

PLOT: A wealthy young American travels to Europe to receive treatment for his alcohol and drug addiction, fighting his urges, reflecting on his hedonistic past, and dreaming of more tranquil times.

Still from Chappaqua (1966)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: With a sometimes-poetic, sometimes-pretentious look at the travails of drug addiction and a fervent dedication to nonlinear storytelling, Chappaqua is messy but unusually sure of itself. There’s little doubt that first-time filmmaker Rooks got exactly the movie he wanted, and that movie is a surreal anti-narrative that by turns puzzles, annoys, and astonishes.

COMMENTS: The opening crawl is essentially the hero’s confession: in an effort to combat the alcoholism that began at the age of 14, our protagonist—Russsel Harwick, the alter ego of writer-director Rooks—turned to an impressive number of alternatives, including marijuana, hashish, cocaine, heroin, peyote, psilocybin and LSD. It’s the peyote that offers hope of breaking the cycle of rotating addiction, as a nightmare convinces him he’s hit rock bottom and leads him to seek a cure. Enjoy this moment; it’s the last time in Chappaqua where anyone makes an effort to explain what’s going on.

Chappaqua is Conrad Rooks’ barely disguised autobiographical account of his own struggles with drugs and drink, and he is bracingly frank about the depths to which he fell. He is selfish, rude, prone to breaking rules, and pathetic in pursuit of his next fix. We get to see what it’s like to operate in a drug-induced fog through such tools as an unsteady handheld camera, comical shifts in tone and perspective, and even a shocking black and white posterized vision of Manhattan. As a visualist, Rooks is rich with ideas. On the other hand, Russel is kind of unbearable to be around. (When he tussles with Burroughs in the writer’s cameo as an intake counselor, I half-hoped that Burroughs might pull a page out of his own history and shoot him.)

And yes, it’s that William S. Burroughs. Rooks hung out in New York with a number of future leading lights of the counterculture, and has said that he made Chappaqua after efforts to bring Naked Lunch to the screen fell through. But Burroughs is still a big part of this film even aside from his cameo, as Rooks used the author’s cut-up technique, deliberately editing out of order and throwing scenes in at random places, sometimes overlaid atop other scenes.

How Conrad Rooks came to be in the company of the likes of Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg (a fellow cameo beneficiary, annoying crowds by the Central Park reservoir by chanting and playing a harmonium) is a major component of any discussion of Chappaqua. An Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CHAPPAQUA (1966)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BARDO, FALSE CHRONICLE OF A HANDFUL OF TRUTHS (2022)

Bardo, Falsa Crónica de unas Cuantas Verdades

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Griselda Siciliani, Íker Sánchez Solano, Ximena Lamadrid, Francisco Rubio

PLOT: A Mexican national film director receives an award in Los Angeles, causing him to reflect on his own artistic life and the Mexican immigrant/expatriate experience.

Still from Bard , a false chronicle of a handful of truths (2022)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: No director can adopt 8 1/2‘s self-reflective template without risking charges of narcissism, pretentiousness, and plagiarism. Iñárritu changes ahead anyway, and proves that there are still unexplored territories in the subgenre—and that you can keep a slice of the audience’s attention, as long as you keep it weird.

COMMENTS: If Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truth‘s daunting title doesn’t scare you off, maybe the 200 minute (scaled back from the 222-minute version that met with a mix of indifference and mild hostility at its Venice premiere) runtime will. Whenever a director decides to pursue a semi-autobiographical project in a surreal style, and amasses an epic budget to realize his dream, red flags start going up: get ready to gaze at a navel not of your own choosing. For these reasons, I approached the prospect of previewing Bardo with trepidation. But I’m happy to report that the movie, while it lags at times and never finds a way out of its own desert, delivers the necessary audacious panache to justify its aspirations.

Bardo begins with a shadowy man flying (well, jumping so high that he might as well be flying) over an endless desert scrub brush, reminding us of Guido’s opening dream of artistic escape. Later, a passerby addresses Silverio, our director protagonist, as “maestro.” Backstage at a popular Mexican TV show, he must weave through a throng of strongmen, dwarf matadors, a white pony, and primping showgirls in pink fur, a scene as chaotic as any Fellini circus. A character critiques the director’s latest movie (or the one we’re watching?) as “pretentious and pointlessly oeneiric,” surfacing Silverio’s own internal doubts.  Silverio sneaks out of an obligation to face the press just like . Silverio’s friends and family show up in a dreamscape in the end as a brass band belts a march that could have been written by Nino Rota in a mariachi mood. There are probably more 8 1/2 references stuck in Bardo, and of course the entire structure of the film—the leaps backward and forward in time, the confusion between reality and fantasy, the reappearance of vanished past memories in the present—comes straight from the maestro’s playbook. Iñárritu  could not have ignored Fellini’s influence without appearing like a thief, so he wisely honors the spirit of his filmic ancestor with these respectful tributes.

Where Iñárritu departs from Fellini is in his explicit Mexicanness, and his explicit politics. Fellini’s films were always completely personal; if they helped define the world’s view of what an Italian  man was, that was simply because Fellini could not exist in a world without pasta and palazzi. He had little interest in the partisan issues of the day, however. Iñárritu is far more didactic in his approach: a completely realistic breakfast conversation between the director and his teenage son exposes the tension between Mexican Americans who primarily identify with their homeland and preserving its heritage, and those who prefer to assimilate and embrace the opportunities of their new home. At other times, the symbolism is broad and powerful: in a centerpiece of the story, Silverio climbs a mountain of corpses in downtown Los Angeles, only to find Hernán Cortés sitting on top: the conquistador bums a cigarette, and they discuss colonialism.

Bardo is about 50% personal and 50% political, and while not all of it works—which is almost inevitable in a work of this scope—almost every scene has a weird dream twist to it to catch your interest. Sometimes, Silverio speaks without moving his lips, to the annoyance of his family. When the director meets his father in a men’s room, his own body digitally shrinks to the size of an eight-year-old. And there’s a great—shall we say “spare”—rendition of ‘s “Let’s Dance” on a crowded dance floor. By casting some element magically off-center in every scene—and occasionally throwing a curve ball to surprise us with sequences that are completely realistic—Iñárritu builds a dreamlike portrait of a man, of a diaspora, and of the tension between the two.

Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths streams exclusively on Netflix starting December 17.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The whole thing is supposed to run on a dream logic reminiscent of Jean Cocteau or Ingmar Bergman, but rather than immersive or contemplative it’s just confusing and weird.”–Jennifer Heaton, Alternative Lens (festival review)

CAPSULE: THE WIZARD OF SPEED AND TIME (1988)

DIRECTED BY: Mike Jittlov

FEATURING: Mike Jittlov, Richard Kaye, Paige Moore

PLOT: Aspiring filmmaker Mike Jittlov makes a wondrous, delightful short film that catches the eye of Hollywood producers; they enlist him to make a feature containing the same formula of special effects magic and raucous whimsy, but sinister forces conspire to prevent Jittlov from realizing his dream.

Still from Wizard of Speed and Time

COMMENTS: Moviemaking is a cutthroat business, you know. Maybe you got a hint of that from a film like The Player. Or possibly  Barton Fink. Could have been The Big Picture. Or perhaps State and Main. Come to think of it, it might’ve been Living in Oblivion. Or Bowfinger or Hollywood Shuffle or My Life’s In Turnaround or In the Soup or …And God Spoke or any number of films where Hollywood takes a look in the mirror to catch a glimpse of the laborious and fraught process of trying to get a movie made. When filmmakers are instructed to write what they know, there are plenty who do exactly that.

Well, you can add Jittlov’s sole feature to that list, with the twist that what he knows is how to make lively low-budget special effects. In 1979, he created a short film exploiting his editing and stop-motion photography skills. As these things often do, the short became Jittlov’s calling card, a golden ticket into the world of Hollywood filmmaking. That turns out to be the starting point for this feature-length exploration of his journey into the heart of the moviemaking beast. And when it comes to “writing what you know,” Jittlow keeps his focus squarely on what he’s good at: special effects. The result is… almost exactly what you’d expect.

On the one hand, anyone who manages to assemble a feature film, particularly without the aid of a well-heeled studio, has undertaken a major achievement. On the other hand, Jittlov’s production is laden with the self-awareness of this achievement, and practically demands to be recognized for its own bravery and pluckiness. To call it self-indulgent is a ground-shaking level of understatement. Self-indulgence is the point; the message seems to be, “Everybody deserves a piece of this genius.”

For a zany comedy, The Wizard of Speed and Time is notably angry. One subplot of the film is Jittlov’s ongoing battle against moviemaking’s gatekeepers. Studio indifference, greedy vendors, apathetic accountants, zealous cops, guild oppressiveness (boy howdy, does this movie hate unions), gawking tourists, and general grownup shallowness are just a few of the forces lined up against the filmmaker’s pure and simple goal to make jolly little movies. Atlas Shrugged wishes its heroes and villains were drawn as starkly as this.

So this movie stands as Jittlov’s demonstration of what the Magic Store could be like if there wasn’t so much red tape and cynicism in the business. That being the case, let’s hear it for the bad guys, because The Wizard of Space and Time is exhausting. Determined to pile on the charm, it never lets up. Every jokey moment is slammed up against another jokey moment, with irony-laden captions, a music score taken directly from a theme park, undercranked footage, goofy sound effects, and so much post-production audio looping to guide you along the way. It’s so breathlessly insistent, it makes Airplane! look like a film.

The Wizard of Speed and Time is undeniably weird (or, as the movie itself jokes, “WHOLLY ODD”), but it’s so invested in its zany iconoclasm that it’s impossible to enjoy on any terms if you’re not Mike Jittlov. The climax of the film features a complete re-creation of the original short. This is a smart move; it reminds the audience that there is something genuinely charming here. What Jittlov does with little money and a whole lot of imagination is quite remarkable. And probably best appreciated in a small dose.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Created by cult animator and weirdo Mike Jittlov, this 1988 hella-low-budget film follows a talented but jobless special effects wizard as he navigates Hollywood… Jittlov’s enthusiastic DIY production earned a generation of cult fans, who allege he slipped over 1000 subliminal messages into the film. Spooky.”–Chase Burns, The Stranger

(This movie was nominated for review by Marko. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: MOBY DOC (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Rob Gordon Bralver

FEATURING: Moby,

PLOT: A wandering, essay-style autobiographical documentary by musician Moby, who discusses his career, his alcoholism, and his veganism in a series of sketches that range from comic to philosophical.

Still from Moby Doc (2021)

COMMENTS: “I know we’ve been in a fairly conventional narrative for a while, but now we’re going to go back to being weird,” sings Moby, accompanying himself on banjo, at about the twenty minute mark. We then see him dressed as a Buddhist monk, walking down an L.A. street striking a bowl with a rod while a group in white robes and animal masks follows him. Alternating typical documentary techniques with weirdo tableaux is the method here, but while there is plenty of rambunctious imagination to the sketches, this isn’t quite the “surrealist biographical documentary” it’s pitched as. Moby Doc is not surrealist, although it contains the fleetingly surreal imagery you’d catch in any modern music video. It is, more accurately, a “collagist biographical documentary,” a story that moves logically and chronologically through Moby’s life and career, but proceeds by stitching together scraps of information cast in different styles and textures. Thus, we have Moby monologues, comic psychodramas where miscast New York actors play Moby’s parents, appreciations from David Lynch, career-spanning concert footage, staged therapy sessions, humorous one-way telephone conversations, space shuttle footage, grandiose shots of Moby standing alone atop a majestic mesa, animated bits, a -esque gag where Moby talks to Death, and a tribute to the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” video.

As someone with a casual acquaintance with Moby—a few tracks from “Play,”  downloaded on mp3 a decade after they were recorded, have made it into my rotation, and I knew virtually nothing of the artist behind them—I think this documentary may play better for people like me than for longtime fans. Rabid followers have heard all these stories before (the musician has already published two memoirs), and there’s not much new music here. The quirky presentation, tailored to a cultured rather than a mass audience, means it serves well as an introduction to those of us with a marginal interest in the musician. Well aware that he is aging out of dance floor relevance, Moby seeks to rebrand himself as an elder statesman and Serious Artist: thus, the recent concert footage of orchestral arrangements of his electronica hits.

As candid as Moby is about his hedonistic excesses—the middle section of the film is peppered with unflattering AA-styled confessions, some involving poop—critics point out that parts of his history are whitewashed or ignored (a scandal involving goes unmentioned). Such spin is to be expected in a self-funded vanity project. The bigger issue is how you respond to the narcissist paradox at the film’s core, which may determine how well you like the film (and, by extension, how well you like Moby). He begins the film by announcing he intends to explore nothing less than “the why of everything,” but then, naturally, proceeds to explore nothing more than the why of Moby. He realizes that he is addicted to fame, confessing how bad reviews and “kill yourself” troll comments wound him, and reveals that he aggrandizes his image in order to compensate for feelings of inadequacy. He wants to share universal wisdom—much of it genuine—-with the viewer, but he has enough self-awareness to realize that this mission will inevitably make him look pompous. He compensates with little self-deprecating jokes: when he talks about his music as a form of self-healing, he cuts to a reaction shot of his fake therapist stifling a yawn.

So Moby Doc ultimately becomes a lavish, 90-minute, million dollar humble brag. This could understandably rub some people the wrong way. But I relate to Moby’s dilemma: everyone has something to teach others, everyone has valuable life-lessons to share, but how can we do this without looking presumptuous and egotistical? Comic irony is the go-to strategy, and Moby deploys it as well as he can. So instead of being a recitation of rock-n-roll clichés about an artist seduced by fame, money, and pleasures of the flesh who goes through some shit and comes out the other end rededicated to his Art, Moby Doc is an obfuscational comedy: Pink Floyd the Wall with a sense of humor. And that’s not a bad thing; it’s probably as much profundity as a man who’s lifelong passion is to make music for teenagers to shake their asses to can hope to produce.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a self-portrait, an acid flashback, a therapy session, a rumination, and a surrealist music-video package all rolled into one.”–Owen Gleiberman, Variety (contemporaneous)

14*. THE BABY OF MÂCON (1993)

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RecommendedBeware

DIRECTED BY: Peter Greenaway

FEATURING: Julia Ormond, Ralph Fiennes, Philip Stone, Jonathan Lacey, Frank Egerton

PLOT: A passion-play performed in 17th-century Florence tells the story of a child born to a geriatric woman. The old woman’s daughter claims to be the child’s virgin mother and makes brisk business selling the “miraculous” infant’s blessings, while the local bishop’s son suspiciously observes her. Meanwhile, the local nobles in the audience interact with the onstage proceedings.

BACKGROUND:

  • The film was partially inspired by an uproar surrounding an advertising campaign that featured a newborn baby still attached to its umbilical cord. Greenaway was perplexed by the public’s reaction, and set out to create an unflinching depiction of the actual evils of murder and rape.
  • The Catholic Church revoked permission for the film crew to shoot in the Cologne Cathedral after Greenaway’s previous film, The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, & her Lover, aired on German television two days before shooting was to begin.
  • The Baby of Mâcon premiered at Cannes, but was seldom seen after that. Although it booked some dates in Europe, no North American distributor would agree to take on the film due to its subject matter. To this day it has still not been released on physical media in Region 1/A, although it finally became available for streaming in the 2020s.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It is a perennial challenge to choose one image from a Greenaway picture; he regards film as a visual medium, not a tool to adapt literature. The shot of the bored young aristocrat, Cosimo de Medici, knocking over the two-hundred-and-eighth pin, signifying the end to the erstwhile virgin’s gang-rape, best merges Greenaway’s sense of mise-en-scène, his disgust for authority, and his undercurrent of odd humor.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Body secretion auction; death by gang-rape

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Fusing the most ornate costumes this side of the Baroque era with organized religion at its worst, The Baby of Mâcon is a lushly beautiful, sickening indictment of a fistful of humanity’s evils. Stylized stage performances integrate increasingly seamlessly with the side-chatter of (comparatively) modern viewers’ commentary who concurrently desire to take part in the make-believe. Greenaway moves his actors and their audience around each other with an expertise matched only by the growing moral horror developing onscreen.


Short clip from The Baby of Mâcon

COMMENTS: As the audience for The Baby of Mâcon, we bear witness to its iniquities. As witnesses, we bear responsibility: responsibility for the fraudulence of the baby’s aunt when she alleges she’s Continue reading 14*. THE BABY OF MÂCON (1993)