Tag Archives: Surrealism

CAPSULE: QUEEN OF PARADIS (2020)

DIRECTED BY: Carl Lindstrom

FEATURING: Reine Paradis

PLOT: After a sold-out exhibit of her “Jungle” photography series, Reine Paradis goes around the United States to find the perfect locations for her follow-up, “Midnight.”

COMMENTS: When I experience art, I try to do so with a degree of ignorance–I typically neither know, nor care to know, anything about the artist. I eschew “director’s commentaries” for films because I want to see the work, and experience the story, on its own. I found Queen of Paradis, a documentary about an artist making art, somewhat awkward going—and knew half an hour in where it was going, and how it was going there.

We follow Reine Paradis, a Surrealist photographic artist, and her husband (who handily fills the roles of driver, prop repairman, photographer, and all around supportive swell guy) across the country as she puts lime plexi-plastic on display, making unreal, still-life vignettes from a real, photographed setup. The tone is typical talking heads-style documentary interspersed with intimate scenes (socially and emotionally intimate, that is)—including more “breaking-and-entering” segments than I was expecting, as Reine and hubby sneak into a salt mine for a white “mountain”top shoot, or onto a fenced-off billboard for a neon-lime-green spaghetti dinner “restaurant” shoot. It is a credit (I presume to director Lindstrom) that the tone never quite veers into satirical—any other movie with the line, ‘Okay! I have the fish!’ shouted by a French woman standing beside a train track would doubtless smack of parody.

But an interesting topic does not an interesting movie make. I also experienced this with the documentary about The Residents. While Queen of Paradis is competent, adequately assembled, and informative about its subject matter, that only hits a documentary’s minimum requirements. (And upon a little reflection, it seems unfair to be so dismissive of a documentary that does those three things; oh well.) Still, all and all, I found Reine’s imagery fascinating and playful and that, ultimately, is the point. Queen of Paradis could be dismissed as an advertisement for the artist, but I don’t begrudge her that. It worked on me.

LINKS OF INTEREST:

reine paradis – The titular artist’s homepage, with plenty of images and information about her, her work, and this movie

Surreal-Chic – In-depth article about Paradis’ first photo-set, “Jungle”

“Interview” by Plastik Magazine – This brief (1:18 minutes) segment conveniently condenses Reine’s process, and results, into a bite-sized chunk

“step into reine paradis’ surrealist adventure land” – Interview and article with the i-D people (a fashion culture, fanzine outfit) featuring many of the photographs from the “Midnight” shoot

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I’m not exactly a massive fan of art documentaries. I prefer watching more of the pop-culture and modern-day artists…the ones with a quirky edge over the traditional. Paradis definitely fits the quirky side of art. Queen of Paradis is an excellent art film.”–Alan Ng, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

SHORT: WHAT DID JACK DO? (2017)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: David Lynch

PLOT: A detective interrogates a monkey suspected of murder.

Still from What Did Jack Do (2017)

COMMENTS: David Lynch made the curious short “What Did Jack Do?” in 2017 for a French museum exhibit, and screened it once more at his own Festival of Disruption in 2018. Other than that, this bit of monkey business was an overlooked footnote in his filmography, until Netflix dropped it onto their streaming service on January 20, 2020 (on Lynch’s 74th birthday).

Shot in Eraserheadian black and white, with Lynchian signatures like coffee and a left-field musical number1, “Jack” is basically a two-hander (almost a one-hander, since Lynch not only plays the interrogating detective, but also provides the monkey’s voice). There is a plot, of sorts, but mostly, its the detective and his simian suspect trading absurdist quips that occupy a space between the ineffably sinister and the ambiguously cliched: “Don’t worry. I’ve heard the phrase ‘birds of a feather flock together.’ A perceived fundamental. There are, of course, exceptions.”

“What Did Jack Do?” is, in essence, Lynch futzing around with the Surrealist potentialities of Syncro-Vox—the technique pioneered in the 1950s in which human lips are superimposed over animals or animated characters. Lynch’s experiment is extremely sophisticated, with his usual attention to detail: visually, the lips are blended so well that they almost pass as a real feature of the Capuchin monkey, remaining just off enough to supply an uncanny undertone that harmonizes wonderfully with the overt absurdity of a talking monkey in a suit and tie. Jack’s face is, of course, blank, and his gaze flits randomly, but depending on dialogue Lynch chooses to put in his mouth he can appear lovesick, resentful, or nervous. That’s a wonderful surrealist illusion. The result, while arguably slim, is still arresting and worth your time—and it goes without saying, a must-see for Lynch completists.

I showed it to a young Lynch neophyte; her main takeaway was “Jack is cute!”

Netflix’s business practices give them a lot to answer for, but they deserve credit when they get it right.  “What Did Jack Do?” is a super-niche offering that won’t be bringing the streamer new subscribers, but they’ve done a hell of a service to the cinephile community by making it available at all.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s weird as hell, man, and I can’t get enough of it.”–Miles Surrey, The Ringer (Netflix release)

CAPSULE: BUNUEL IN THE LABYRINTH OF THE TURTLES (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Salvador Simó Busom

FEATURING: Voices of Jorge Usón, Fernando Ramos

PLOT: Animated film chronicling the making of Luis Buñuel’s third movie, the Surrealist documentary Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (“Land Without Bread”) (1933), about a poverty-stricken region of Spain.

Still from Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles (2018)

COMMENTS: It’s surprising that there are (to my knowledge) no biopics devoted exclusively to the explosive artist . He makes a brief appearance in ’s Midnight in Paris (2011) and plays third wheel to and Federico García Lorca in the regrettable Little Ashes (2008), but Labyrinth of the Turtles is the only movie to make the father of cinematic Surrealism the central character. That fact would make this film notable even if it wasn’t good; fortunately, it’s as entertaining as it is informative.

Labyrinth of the Turtles is based on a graphic novel, and the animation is stiff and delivered at a low frame rate. Given that this is an adult film about ideas rather than a kid’s cartoon about chase scenes, this isn’t a problem. Actual scenes from Land Without Bread are cleverly embedded within the animation. The choice to film in hand-drawn animation allows for inclusion of some dream sequences that would be expensive to render in live-action: elephants with stilt legs stomping through the streets of Paris, and Buñuel groping the Virgin Mary, who then shows him a vision of a giraffe with a cabinet in its torso.

It begins with Buñuel as persona non grata in the French filmmaking community, blackballed by bishops after the blasphemy of his second film, L’Age d’Or. He only raises enough money for his planned documentary when his friend Ramón Acín wins the lottery. Although an avant-garde writer and sculptor by vocation, it falls upon Ramón to be both the voice of financial reason and the comic foil, fretting about Buñuel’s extravagant purchase of an automobile and his erratic methods.

Labyrinth of the Turtles presumes that the viewer has a passing familiarity with its subject, and although novices should be able to follow along, it will be more rewarding to Buñuel enthusiasts. For example, Turtles references Buñuel’s habit (hee-hee) of dressing as a nun to shock the bourgeois. It also cites the director’s rocky rivalry with painter and former collaborator Dalí: the movie’s biggest set piece, the anxious nightmare where Luis sees Dalían pachyderms marching through the streets of Paris, suggests that his comrade’s greater recognition deeply rankled and motivated Buñuel. The movie doesn’t shy away from the director’s cruelty towards animals, either: he arranges for the killings of a rooster, a goat, and (most disturbingly) a donkey, as part of his obsession with the ever-present specter of death. He can also be tender towards the children of Las Hurdes, however, and seems to genuinely respect and suffer along with the poor of the region (going so far as to plan not to eat in front of them). All in all, The Labyrinth of Turtles is a significant, imaginative document of an important but neglected bit of cinema’s history, delivered in a paradoxical spirit its master would approve of.

This Spanish production was picked up by animation specialist GKids as a prestige picture and briefly released to theaters in 2019.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Simo] regularly returns to dreamscapes that Buñuel would admire, very rarely in a way that underlines the internal struggles of the filmmaker at the time but that highlight how his visions co-existed with his reality. At its best, ‘Buñuel and the Labyrinth of the Turtles’ is as caught between dream and reality as the film that Buñuel made in the mountains of Spain.”–Brian Tallerico, RoberEbert.com (contemporaneous)

4*. ELECTRIC DRAGON 80000 V (2001)

Erekutorikku doragon 80000V

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Sogo Ishii [AKA Gakuryû Ishii]

FEATURING: , , voice of Masakatsu Funaki

PLOT: A boy who survives electrocution while climbing an electrical tower grows up to be “Dragon Eye Morrison,” a human battery and “reptile investigator” who tracks missing lizards and who can only control his violent impulses by playing his electric guitar. Meanwhile, “Thunderbolt Buddha,” a half-man, half-metal being who was also struck by lightning as a child, hears of our hero, and wants to test his electrical superpowers against his counterpart’s. The villainous Buddha provokes a high voltage showdown with Morrison on a Tokyo rooftop.

Still from Electric Dragon 80000V

BACKGROUND:

  • Sogo Ishii was an established director whose work was influenced by punk music and style. He was an influential figure for Japanese underground filmmakers, but his work is seldom seen outside of his homeland.
  • Industrial/noise band MACH-1.67, an occasional ensemble that included director Ishii and star Asano, provided the music. They subsequently performed concerts with this film playing in the background.
  • Composer Hiroyuki Onogawa said he had never written rock music nor worked much with the electric guitar before this project.
  • The movie was a cult success in Japan, running to packed houses in one theater for two months. Plans for a Part 2 were discussed, but never materialized.
  • Reports suggest that the film was shot in three days (other accounts say three weeks, and obviously post-production took much, much longer) and largely improvised.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’re going to go with the visage of the movie’s villain, a half-man, half-statue. (Beyond the fact that he was struck by lightning as a child, his alloyed origins are never explained.)

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Thunderbolt Buddha, TV repairman; pre-rage noise solo

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A team of Japanese industrial punks decide to made a surrealistic black and white superhero noise musical. If this sounds awesome to you, we won’t argue.

Original trailer for Electric Dragon 80000V

COMMENTS: We can dispense with any sort of search for deep Continue reading 4*. ELECTRIC DRAGON 80000 V (2001)

366 UNDERGROUND: SHE FOUND NOW (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Zachary O. Burch

FEATURING: Francesca Caterina Ghi, Nidalas Madden, Peyton Rowe, Tyair Blackman

PLOT: With a storm approaching, a group of housemates try to resolve their personal relationships, while a mysterious entity lurks in the shadows.

Still from "She Found Now" (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: She Found Now is a curious little film, featuring interesting screen images and loaded with portentous symbolism and mannered acting. But the dream state dramatized is not new enough to be surprising, and the weirder elements feel less motivated by the plot than positioned to obscure it.

COMMENTS: The pretty girl looks up from her pasta, searches for the right moment, and then makes her play to break the ice with her paramour: “So, I heard around that there’s supposed to be a hurricane coming by. Would you feel comfortable at my place?” Such is the nature of things in the universe of She Found Now—disaster lurks around the corner, but people show only the most casual awareness of it.

This scene, which kicks things off, is not like any other in the film, and yet it’s strangely representative of the movie as a whole. Most of the action, such as it is, takes place within a single apartment, but the characters are mentally elsewhere most of the time, either in a dream locale (like the restaurant, rendered in amusingly obvious green screen), a landscape of their own fears, or in the mind of someone outside. Our characters are trapped, but longing for an elsewhere they can only imagine.

The filmmakers clearly appreciate surreal humor. A scene in front of a static-filled television almost has a vibe to it, as more people keep arriving to gape at the screen. Similarly amusing is a game of Trivial Pursuit where the trivia is people’s lives: “How do you feel?” “Are you satisfied with yourself?” Director Burch and co-screenwriter K. L. Scott also have a knack for striking imagery: a monochromatic encounter with a mystery doppelganger is effectively creepy, while a shadow puppet that lingers and transforms is genuinely unsettling.

Given their limitations, the makers of She Found Now do a lot with a little. They clearly learned the trick of leaning into their challenges. For example, one can easily surmise that actors were not available to re-record dialogue. Instead, they cast new voices that are blatantly out-of-step with the visuals. It adds another layer of dissonance to a storyline that is built on mystery.

My biggest problem, though, concerns that mystery. All the surrealism, all the deliberate oddness and opaqueness… it doesn’t add up to very much. In the final act of the film, when all of our main characters are being stalked by a malevolent force, the antagonist is rendered as a guy with bear paws whose face is blocked out by a big dot. Should we know who this is? Is the absence of a face a metaphorical comment on our fears? Or is it just a lo-fi solution to an inability to properly represent the horror being invoked?

I was plagued by questions like this throughout She Found Now. Even the title flummoxed me. Is that a comment on the lead’s predicament, or her conclusion? Which now is “Now”? And should I draw any inference from the fact that the title is not only drawn from a song by cult shoegazer band My Bloody Valentine, but that the album in question marked that band’s emergence from a 14-year hiatus? She Found Now feels like a word problem that is impossible to solve because there just aren’t enough clues to piece the answer together, and yet the film is nothing without its mysteries.

There’s the hint of something powerful in She Found Now. I suspect the filmmakers were hoping to invoke something ian, a visual metaphor for potent psychological roadblocks. But the reference point I kept coming back to was “No Exit,” the legendary play by Jean-Paul Sartre in which three people trapped in a room for an eternity come to learn that “hell is other people.” These flatmates do not hate each other, but they are trapped in each others’ self-destructive orbits. But so much is invested in deliberately obscuring those real emotions in surreal decoration that the movie never gets to be what it really is.