Tag Archives: Suicide

CAPSULE: SEVEN STAGES TO ACHIEVE ETERNAL BLISS (2018)

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AKA Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh

DIRECTED BY: Vivieno Caldinelli

FEATURING: Kate Micucci, Sam Huntington, Dan Harmon, Taika Waititi

PLOT: Claire and Phil move to a spacious L.A. apartment with suspiciously low rent and discover it’s not a lucky find.

COMMENTS: Liberate yourself from the shackles of your thought.

Or so goes the opening tract from the Book of Storsh. An absurdist comedy that explores the space where “self-help” and “suicide cult” intersect, Seven Stages is another strange baby from the SpectreVision production company. They seem intent on bringing weirdness to the wider world of film, no matter how off-the-wall or bleak its progeny may prove to be. This movie’s relentless energy is to its credit; by the end, though, Seven Stages descends into a nihilistic abyss that papers over human despair with a folksy, up-tempo delivery.

For reasons explained during a bathtub vision, Paul (Sam Huntington) and Claire (Kate Micucci) find themselves in a suspiciously large apartment in downtown Los Angeles. Claire is doing her damnedest to get ahead in the advertising business; Paul is doing his damnedest to loaf around their new home and avoid reality. On their first night in their new home, a fanatic sporting a red spiral mark on his forehead breaks in and engages Paul in a bizarre quotation challenge (somehow involving esoteric civil infraction statutes from Iowa), then tap-dances to the bathroom and slices his own throat with a cake knife. When the police are summoned, Detective Cartwright (Dan Harmon, coming across to me as strangely familiar) explains that it’s just another case of a Storsh disciple knocking himself off (“Didn’t you read the lease?”) Slowly at first, and then dramatically, Claire and Paul embrace their circumstances, eventually becoming followers of Storsh’s teachings.

Seven Stages has the feel of an “Upright Citizen’s Brigade” sketch stretched out a bit too long and never quite hitting top gear. There were a number of laughs (often involving the detective who is hell-bent on pitching his screenplay to Wesley Snipes). And the moment when Paul and Claire decide to follow only the “good” parts of Storsh’s religion was a clear and succinct indictment of the whole self-improvement media complex. But when the final sections—Let the Tub Runneth Over and Change Your Story—begin to unravel, the often-silly, occasionally-funny tone plummets into something far more sinister.

I may be overreacting here, perhaps having mentally shifted into a wholly unintended direction, but the feeling I was left with afterwards was not one of comedic satisfaction (or disappointment, for that matter), but of emptiness. I have more of a fatalistic joie-de-vivre than many, but the lesson hammered home here–delivered glibly in the opening scene by Storsh himself, “That’s what death is: eating that ice-cream on your own terms”–suggest that this movie’s screwball antics merely mask a dark mind. But, I did see Elijah Wood‘s name in the credits, and I know from recent experience that SpectreVision will get up to whatever it wants to. I cannot recommend this movie, but I’ll admit I’m impressed that something so comedically hit-and-miss about something so staggeringly bleak got a green light from anyone.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The comedy flickers between playful and obscene, and the story bounces back and forth between strange and absolutely screwed up… if you like your humor with a side of WTF, then this is your film.”–Kristy Strouse, Film Inquiry (festival screening)

LIST CANDIDATE: DER TODESKING [THE DEATH KING] (1990)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Due to the episodic nature of the film, too many to list

PLOT: The Death King is a seven-part film with no overarching plot—each of the episodes is a vignette involving suicide, murder, and sometimes both. The events may take place over the course of a week (Monday through Sunday), with some tied together by the letters sent through the post by Monday’s suicide victim.

Still from Der Todesking (The Death King) (1990)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Der Todesking‘s qualifications as a weird movie stem from its utter unclassifiability as any other kind of movie. It’s too grisly for the arthouse and too philosophical for the grindhouse. Its lack of a single narrative makes it awkwardly describable as a film essay. That in mind, it is tremendously well executed, with moments of despair, surrealism, and beauty.

COMMENTS: In the film’s introduction (included as a bonus feature), Jörg Buttgereit assures the audience, “Don’t get me wrong here: it’s a movie against suicide.” It says something of either the kind of person who would watch this movie or, more likely, the kind who would refuse to watch it but still condemn it, that this explanation is necessary. To be fair, Der Todesking is at times a difficult movie, but that is due to the unpleasant subject matter (suicide), not the director’s handling of it.

The suicide-centered set-pieces are framed by a time-lapse image of a decomposing corpse. Within this framing structure is another one: an over-the-shoulder view of a young girl writing in a journal, beginning with the title for a drawing (“der Todesking”, in cute, loopy cursive), and ending with her finishing a drawing of a skeleton with a crown. She explains to the camera, “This is the King of Death. He makes people want to die.” Now already at two levels of framedness, the seven (largely) separate suicide sketches are each further framed by the days of the week, sometimes overlapping with each other. Got that?

Even beyond the framing cantrip, the film’s style is a showcase for low budget inventiveness. The first episode has a montage scene accomplished by a (seemingly?) uncut shot of a camera rotating several times full circle around a small apartment room, showing a man going through mundane tasks shortly after resigning from a well-paying job. Background items reveal his character. His only companion seems to be a goldfish, who joins him in death once he’s downed dozens of pills while in the bathtub. Or is it his only companion? Before his resignation and suicide, he writes and sends off about half a dozen letters.

On Tuesday, one is received by a friend, informing him of the sender’s suicide. He carries this note to a video rental place where, almost choosing My Dinner with André, instead opts for Vera: the Death-Angel of the Gestapo. The clerk is surprised he’s only renting one movie: the fellow explains he only has time for one—he’s got a birthday party to go to. Or so he thought. Despite the letter, his rental needs watching; and it’s a real pity that his girlfriend interrupts his viewing…

Of the seven days, Thursday is perhaps the most haunting. Using camera shots reminiscent of Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, the bit is virtually silent: just various angles and journeys through, above, in, and around a large overpass. Title cards appear, indicating the name, age, and profession of random individuals. These are all recorded suicides from that location.

Buttgereit’s movie is fairly brief, but that is due to his efficiency as a director and storyteller. Some very bleak ideas are explored here, and despite the director’s reputation, the movie never falls into the realm of the tasteless.

NOTE ON THE LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY: So carefully was this little gem packaged that I was somewhat loath to break the seal and open it. The cover sleeve, unlike so many releases, was actually different from the box art. Within, not only was there a fully packed disc (trailers for the director’s oeuvre, a documentary, and a soundtrack-only option, as well as a film introduction and commentary) but also a graphic postcard; limited in quantity, like the disc. If you get your hands on on it, you’ll have one of only 3,000 copies.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The end result is oddly beautiful and perhaps Buttgereit’s finest achievement as a director…”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (Blu-ray)

 

 

CAPSULE: @SUICIDEROOM (2011)

Sala Samobójców, AKA Suicide Room

DIRECTED BY: Jan Komasa

FEATURING: Jakub Gierszal, Agata Kulesza, Krzysztof Pieczynski, Roma Gasiorowska-Zurawska

PLOT: When a spoiled rich boy is mocked after an embarrassing high school incident publicly

Still from @suicide room (2011)

reveals his homosexual desires, he retreats into a virtual world, a community called “suicide room” full of teens trying to work up the courage to kill themselves.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The hallucinatory virtual reality episodes that look like video captures from “Sims 3: Depressed Emo Kid Expansion Pack” add a novelty and curiosity factor, but @suicideroom isn’t weird at its core: it’s an earnest look at teen depression and suicide.

COMMENTS: Call it a gimmick if you must, but @suicideroom‘s animated sequences are the drawing card rather than a distraction in this teen depression drama. Without the virtual reality wrinkle, this Polish import would play a bit like a suicide-prevention after-school special with a budget, complete with almost comically uninvolved, clueless parents and an appropriately over-emoting tortured teen. The backstory is simple enough. Dominik is handsome, popular and privileged. He’s already got a date for the prom and a private chauffeur supplied by his absentee parents. He’s got everything a slightly-Bieberish looking kid could want, and is the last guy in his class who you’d expect to suffer from depression—but after a male-on-male dare-kiss goes viral, he quickly goes from heartthrob to pariah. And here’s where things get a little strange. Dominik retreats to his room, where after thrashing about a bit and beating his mattress in despair, a chat window pops up on his laptop and invites him to join an online community. After personalizing his avatar he finds himself set loose in an impossibly detailed virtual nightclub, chasing a comely toon with pink hair; they go to video chat and he meets Sylwia, a weepy blonde shut-in wearing a plastic mask who is also the proprietress of the “Suicide Room.” Sylwia is both a character in the real-life story and a symbol of the romantic allure of youthful melancholia; there is a mysterious, allegorical feel to her unlikely online recruitment/seduction of Dominik. Once Dominik is initiated into the secret suicide society, any pretense that this is a real virtual community disappears; the impossibly fluid and responsive world of Suicide Room follows the rules of an animated cartoon, not the clunky mechanics of online community like World of Warcraft. Characters fight ridiculously complicated anime-inspired duels seen through multiple angles and split-screens, sail over oceans of polygonal waves, and turn into howling banshees when they get angry. What we see is the online world as embellished by Dominik’s imagination, a wired existence that’s realer and more appealing to him than the harsh realities of the world outside his door. The stylistic strategy could be described either as “virtual magical realism” or “digital Expressionism.” Whatever you call it, it may be in fact too successful, since whenever we’re following Dominik’s “real” story we’re always looking forward to our next trip inside the dreamlike magical box for a peek at what the electronic pixies have been up to in our absence. Unfortunately, nothing good can last, and Dominik’s return to the real world when his Internet is pulled ends in tragedy, and with a phone number for a suicide prevention hotline. It’s not entirely clear whether the director means to criticize social media for encouraging isolation from the real world and allowing the spread of dangerous ideas like suicide-promotion support groups, or whether its prominence in the story simply reflects teen reality at this point in history. Regardless, such musings add a bit more interest to this well-intentioned, semi-successful, slightly odd drama that may resonate with the younger crowd.

While it’s a worthwhile watch, @suicideroom is a tough movie to market outside of its native Poland. In the U.S.A., emo went out of style in November 2011, exactly one year after silly bandz, and even the most depressed American teenager would watch that Katy Perry movie before tuning in to a subtitled Polish film with opera on the soundtrack.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

…helmer-writer Jan Komasa overplays his hand… ultimately creating an unsympathetic protagonist whose fate doesn’t inspire much interest… Replete with bizarre avatars, the pic’s slick animated segments convey the feeling of being inside an online sword-and-sorcery game.”–Alissa Simon, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: PULSE (2001)

AKA Kairo

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Haruhiko Katô, Kumiko Asô, Koyuki

PLOT: A computer expert’s suicide is the first in a series of mysterious events and disappearances that leave Tokyo, and the world, depopulated; is a website that dials up people on its own and asks if they want to meet a ghost responsible?

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s creepy and weirder than the average scare flick, but Pulse is tuned to the standard turn of the millennium J-horror wavelength.  It’s a good watch for fear fans, and a seminal one for Asian New Wave horror followers, but it doesn’t go that extra weird mile.  Kurosawa’s ambiguous horror/detective procedural Cure (1997) makes for a better bizarre candidate.

COMMENTS: Pulse slips so quietly from reality to strangeness that you hardly recognize the transition; one minute, you’re watching its characters going about their daily lives, dealing with unexpected suicides and alarming computer viruses, and the next minute the world is almost deserted and ruled by ghosts.  The theme of this horror movie is not really fear but loneliness, and how technology fosters isolation more than cures it.  The film is not too subtle in delivering that message.  A plague of ghosts seems to spread via a computer website; one character immediately diagnoses a low-tech character’s sudden interest in the Internet as a desire to connect with his fellow man; a spirit tells the protagonist “death was eternal loneliness” from inside a foil-lined room.  Even scenes occurring before people start disappearing en masse are shot in disconcertingly deserted urban settings, on empty streets and buses and in lonely apartments.  Characters discuss the difficulty humans have making deep and lasting connections, while simultaneously hungering, struggling, and failing to form those bonds with each other.  Those who encounter one of the malevolent spirits in Pulse go through a syndrome (ghost traumatic stress disorder?) that involves locking themselves inside a room alone and sealing the door with red tape.  What the movie intends to say on the metaphorical level is very clear; what’s a little more confused is what’s supposed to be happening on the literal level.  We get half-baked exposition regarding the mechanics of the ghost world, but the spirits’ malevolent motives aren’t ever clearly explained, and it’s not at all certain how all the pieces are supposed to fit together.  If, as one sage tells us, the dead are now leaking into our world because theirs has exceeded its capacity, how do they benefit from convincing the living to kill themselves?  Wouldn’t that just worsen their overpopulation problem?  If the spirits of the dead have no place to go, shouldn’t the world be overrun with ghostly presences, rather than empty?  What purpose in setting up the spectral website that dials up users on its own—other than to scare a technophobic audience?  The movie glosses over answers to these questions, which does make it feel like a weirder endeavor; in this case, however, it seems the material might benefit from a fairer stab at clarity.  But Kiyoshi (no relation to Akira) Kuroswa is all about atmosphere, and he’s an expert at conjuring it.  The long lonely narrative spaces are broken up by several memorable moments, including glitchy technostrangeness involving a metaphysically malfunctioning webcam with a distorting lens, bizarre broadcast television interference from the Beyond, people who melt into black smudges on the wall, and a genuinely frightening trip inside “The Forbidden Room” to discuss matters of mortality with the death’s head who dwells therein.  Mood, not logic or even philosophy, is the glue that holds the movie together, and while it isn’t the horror masterpiece it might have been if that atmosphere was yoked to a better story, it works well on the shiver-inducing level.

The dumbed-down 2006 Hollywood remake with Kirsten Bell, part of a trend of bastardized American remakes of J-horror classics, was widely despised by critics and audiences alike.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…dolorous, shivery, and surreal.”–Wesley Morris, Boston Globe (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: SPIRAL [UZUMAKI] (2000)

DIRECTED BY: Higuchinsky

FEATURING: Eriko Hatsume, Fhi Fan

PLOT:  One by one the residents of a small Japanese village become “infected” with an

Still from Spiral [Uzumaki] (2000)

obsession for spirals, leading them to neglect their normal day to day lives and eventually to their odd spiral-related deaths.  Yes, you read right…spiral deaths!

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST:  Movies that achieve a coveted final place on the List need to be really very good or really very weird.  Some will be great enough to score on both counts.  Much as I love Uzumaki, I have to say it should earn a place based on the sheer quality and quantity of the weirdness on display.  Viewers who like a neatly wrapped plot will be annoyed and frustrated that the nature of what’s going wrong in the village is never really explained.  There’s a breadcrumb sprinkling of just enough hints to allow you to ponder the cause yourself: is it an ancient curse, casually malevolent demons or something worse, rooted in the double helix of the villagers’ very DNA?

COMMENTS: This should be a pretty grim film.  An apparently innocent group of villagers are led to gruesome self mutilation and picturesque suicides by a strange infection, for which there is no cure, no explanation, and from which there is no escape.  It “should” be a grim film, and yet it’s charming, quirky and downright laugh out loud funny in parts.  Based on Junji Ito’s manga of the same name, it was made and released before the conclusion of the print version was released, so viewers coming to it via the books will apparently find significant differences.  I have only read a couple of chapters of the manga and therefore cannot comment on how the two compare, but watching the film it’s tempting to think that some of the stylization of the cinematography and acting draws on the original artwork.  Burtonesque spirals are so ubiquitous throughout the film, appearing in clouds, bushes and ceiling panels that it would be a rash viewer who launched into an uzumaki drinking game.

The story centres on schoolgirl Kirie and her solemn, androgynous boyfriend Shuichi.  It’s Shuichi who first realizes that all is not well.  His father has become so obsessed with Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: SPIRAL [UZUMAKI] (2000)

READER RECOMMENDATION: HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971)

The second submission in the June review writing contest: by “SG Eric”.

DIRECTOR: Hal Ashby

FEATURING: Bud Cort,

PLOT: Twenty-something rich kid unfulfilled with his life stages fake suicides to peeve his uppity mother and ultimately finds meaning in life when he meets carefree 89-year-old Maude.

Still from Harold and Maude (1971)

WHY IT DESERVES TO MAKE THE LIST: The May-December romance theme is taken to the extreme by romantically entangling (yes, I mean sexually) a very young man with a very old lady.  Considered taboo by most people, the film makes a plea that the perversion is justified because these two odd souls truly do make a bona fide connection with each other, regardless of age or what society deems as acceptable.

COMMENTS:  First off, I’ll admit that I’m biased when it comes to this film. It has been my all-time favorite for about as long as I can remember. Excepting The Dark Crystal (which just frightened me) it was the first truly “weird” film I encountered as a child.  Like any other kid of my generation, I was enamored by the spectacle that was Star Wars.  Fantasy consumes a child’s existence, and there was no greater escape than those first three films.  I’m guessing around ’84 I first came upon Harold and Maude on HBO.  I was engrossed immediately.  Here was a movie that did not rely on fantasy to hold your attention.  Sure, there is some reality-based whimsy involved.  The humor is dark for sure, some may say morbid, but to a 10-year-old kid watching someone feigning multiple suicides comes off as hilarious.  At least it did for me at the time, and yes it still does.

I know this movie has a huge and dedicated cult following.  Without trying to sound completely snobbish, I hope it stays within that circle.  It deserves to be seen by those who like their cinema offbeat.  I find this movie to be so perfect that I cannot fathom anyone not enjoying it.

Now let’s talk about what makes this movie weird.  The May-December theme is basically a couple who is one-half old and one-half young.  It has been explored many times over in movies, usually in dreadful Hollywood romantic comedies.  Usually, it is the older man falling for the younger girl… yes, tracing a semi-origin to “Lolita,” one of the most popular novels written about the subject, which was made into a couple of “controversial” films.  There are exceptions of good films exploring this theme.  Ghost World (I agree a bit creepy for a couple) or Lost in Translation are good examples, but they never really surpassed plain ol’ sweetness.  What sets Harold and Maude apart, other than the gender-role age discrepancy being reversed, is that they give each other hope and a true purpose for life.

Harold’s mother ceaselessly tries to find a respectable mate through dating services.  Harold wants no part in this shallowness, and bizarre fake suicides are performed to ward each one off.  Upon meeting Maude at funeral services, for which neither one knows the deceased, they hit it off.  Maude takes part in several shenanigans that involuntarily involve Harold.  He starts to see this chaos/anarchy as a means for living and loving.  He tells his mother early on that he has found a companion in Maude and provides evidence with a picture of her.  I believe initially the affair was meant to once again irk his mother, but eventually unfolds to true and devout love.  Of course his mother is aghast and she stops at nothing to prevent the relationship.  Again, the results are nothing short of hilarious.

I have always been fascinated by two people who are linked together and it seems to be a complete mismatch.  The beauty of Harold and Maude is that they are not mismatched at all.  Only the age factor makes it seem that way.  I compare it to seeing a strange couple walking down the aisle of a store.  One is obese and the other is pencil-thin.  It makes you raise and eyebrow and think, “that’s weird.”  Is it?  If they are happy I salute them. Love truly knows no boundaries and it makes this life what it is.  Films like Harold and Maude can show you that love exists, in spades.  It may also tell you to take that spade and dig up that city tree and transplant it in the forest where it belongs.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a doggedly eccentric film which some will reject out of hand. Others will find it profoundly moving and life affirming.”–TV Guide