Tag Archives: Surrealism

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.

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: YUMEJI (1991)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Tomoko Mariya, , Masumi Miyazaki, Reona Hirota

PLOT: A bohemian poet and painter travels to Kanagawa to wait for his ailing girlfriend, only to fall for an alluring widow while he’s there.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Seijun Suzuki, a defiantly unconventional filmmaker with a career’s worth of bizarre films already under his belt, threw himself into Yumeji like he was making his magnum opus of weirdness. There’s blood painted on to the screen, life coming alive as art, and opaque references to slaughterhouses and blood—the last of which would seem to have little to do with the film’s subject. For an artfully bizarre take on an era filled with strange contradictions and perversions, who better than Seijun Suzuki to take you there?

COMMENTS: Takehisa Yumeji was a real-life painter, whose individualist lifestyle and era-defining paintings made him an icon of Japan’s Taisho era (1914-26). The name Yumeji contains the Japanese word for “dream,” so it’s fitting that Yumeji begins with a dream sequence in tribute to its namesake. But if you were expecting Seijun Suzuki to make a conventional biopic, think again. Suzuki used the names of some of the real women in Yumeji’s life, including Hikono (Masumi Miyazaki) and Oyo (Reona Hirota), who seem to have been portrayed in keeping with their real-life counterparts. Apart from these details, Suzuki paid more attention to Yumeji’s artistic side, imagining his romantic escapades and artistic concepts manifested as life.

As in Kagero-za, Suzuki centers the film on an adulterous love triangle, with a mysteriously powerful husband constantly plotting the protagonist’s murder, even though he never gets around to actually carrying it out. However, not one to repeat himself, Suzuki upped the ante here by adding a second adulterous love triangle, wherein the cuckolded husband is said to have killed his rival by throwing him down the drainage pipe at the local slaughterhouse. The killer then hides out in the mountains, evading a relentless police search and creeping around with a scythe in a none too subtle evocation of the Grim Reaper. 

Always one to dabble in surrealism, Suzuki gave in to his urges completely in Yumeji, throwing in enough hallucinatory imagery to eclipse any other film in his storied career. Paintings appear on wooden posts when tapped, a woman is cooked in a huge soup kettle by a group of singing women, and a blond madman proposes a duel while standing next to a hedge made of bloody animal carcasses, later emerging from a lake covered in blood himself. Yumeji (Kenji Sawada) also suffers from a clash of personalities which eventually lead to an identity crisis reminiscent of The Blood of a Poet: he is confronted by multiple versions of himself, all of whom accuse him of being a fraud. His morbid paranoia, his womanizing lust, his poetic thought process—all come together to inform the mood of the film and create something which feels much more like a waking dream than a biographical story.

The two previous films in Suzuki’s Taisho Trilogy (Zigeunerweisen and Kagero-za) each have their fair share of beautiful imagery, but Yumeji is overflowing with countless compositions that are framed to mimic Japanese paintings of the past. At numerous points throughout, paint is even overlaid onto the frame, including a notable scene in which a bright yellow boat nearly capsizes in a torrent of cow’s blood that is dabbed in red blobs along the bottom of the frame. Yumeji is also more erotically-charged than its predecessors, with an earthy sense of sexuality and framings that look like they could have been pin-ups from1920s Tokyo, together with levels of nudity and lewd behavior that contradict the popular image of historical films as stuffy and mannered visions of the past.

It’s fitting that as Seijun Suzuki’s career progressed, his work became more artistically-focused and surreal. His early films, with their painterly attention to color and visual design, bear the marks of an unconventional artist who just happened to be tasked with making B-movies about thugs and prostitutes. In the Taisho Trilogy, Suzuki finally had free reign to make movies that eschewed storytelling and audience expectations in favor of surreal imagery, irreverent reflections on Japanese culture and history, and fractured narratives that often featured elements of the supernatural. Curiously, Yumeji is the least supernatural of the three films, yet the weirdest overall. Like the pornographic kimono that features in its nightmarish finale, it’s a period piece that represents the culture of its era while also adding surrealism, eroticism and mystery into its historical framework. Thanks to Arrow Films, these three little known films by one of the great Japanese surrealist masters are now ripe to be rediscovered in all of their bizarre, experimental glory.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By the time the film was completed, the gonzo filmmaker had so thoroughly dispensed with narrative sanity and even basic filmic grammar that whether or not the subtitles are on becomes irrelevant.” – Fernando F. Croce, Slant Magazine

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: SAVAGES (1972)

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DIRECTED BY: James Ivory

FEATURING: Lewis Stadlen, Anne Francine, Ultra Violet, Sam Waterston, and many more of approximately equal importance

PLOT: A tribe of “mud people” find a croquet ball, follow it to an abandoned mansion, put on the clothes they find, host a dinner party, then fall back into savagery.

Still from Savages (1972)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Carefully structured but thoroughly strange from start to finish, Savages is a unique experiment from an unlikely source. Part mock-anthropological study, part absurd satire, the movie is made in the spirit of and of American underground filmmakers, but with the high level of craftsmanship imposed by the Merchant/Ivory team. It’s an oddball outlier in an Oscar-bait canon.

COMMENTS: Savages is a movie that’s almost as strange for who made it as for what it is. When you think of Merchant/Ivory productions, you think of their run from 1985 to 1993 when they produced three massively praised historical costume dramas: A Room with a View, Howard’s End, and Remains of the Day. Watching these staid and starchy dramas aimed at audiences packed with little old ladies, you might never guess that the filmmakers were once young and willing to experiment with movies about stone age tribespeople who morph overnight into well-heeled gentlemen and ladies who throw lavish dinner parties and do the Charleston before spontaneously reverting back to savagery. Movies with nudity and lesbian sex and transvestites and a Superstar in the cast. And yet, strange as it seems, Merchant and Ivory were young and foolish once, and Savages exists.

It begins in the primeval forests (of upstate New York), where a tribe of “mud people” goes about their business of gathering narcotic leaves, kidnapping females from other tribes, and forced ritual lovemaking with the high priestess. These scenes are all silent, with explanatory intertitles and an eerie soundtrack of jungle drums, pan flutes, and bird calls, heavy on the reverb. Following the mysterious appearance of a croquet ball, the tribe makes its way to an abandoned manor house, explores, and after licking a few portraits on the walls, put on the clothes they find in the wardrobe (sometimes getting the genders wrong). Flash forward, and suddenly we’re in color and the cast is speaking English—although dialogue is often fancifully absurd and scarcely more illuminating than the grunts of the mud tribe. (The funniest bit in the whole movie is the ersatz-Broadway musical number”Steppin’ on a Spaniel,” with lyrics like “Close your eyes and give those guys a big smooch, right now/As you’re jumpin’ up and down and steppin’ on a pooch, bow wow!”) They throw a dinner party, complete with gossip and scheming and affairs. They drink too much after dinner, and take drugs, and have sex, and gradually their little society breaks down, until they all pour out onto the lawn at dawn, whacking drunkenly at croquet balls before shedding their clothes and meandering back into the forest to start anew.

Merchant/Ivory here mock the same species of bourgeois drawing room manners they will later romanticize in their Oscar-nominated features. Civilization is a farce; the tribespeople play the same social roles as they did in the jungle, but now with a veneer of sophistication. The enslaved woman serves as maid to the others, a young warrior becomes a bully, and the couple who were always shamelessly humping in the forest are now slipping away every chance they get for illicit assignations. Civilization is presented as a cyclical proposition, rising and then declining back into savagery (as things get turbulent near the end, we are tempted to place a pin in the timeline with a marker reading “you are here.”) It’s all very abstract, but there’s a recurring theme of imitation: the intellectual character is obsessed with an architectural model in the drawing room and how it recreates reality, only smaller, while the limping man tells a story but is unable to answer questions about it because he has merely memorized a book entry verbatim. The savages act out the manners of the civilized without understanding the purpose behind the traditions they carry out.

If there’s one big complaint with Savages, it’s that the scenario drags on far too long. The early reels, in the forest primeval, are the most interesting; a conscientious editor could have cut the rest down by fifteen minutes or even a half hour without doing any damage to the overall effect.

The film was made specifically to take advantage of an abandoned manor house location; Ivory thought up the savagery-to-civilization scenario and then hired a couple of writers (New Yorker essayist George W. S. Trow and National Lampoon‘s Michael O’Donoghue) to pen a script (which was still unfinished by the time the cameras started rolling). The Criterion Collection released Savages as part of their Merchant/Ivory collection. The disc includes an interview with the producer and director alongside the pair’s 1972 BBC documentary The Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of Civilization.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“No wit, no thought, no surrealist flair, just vacuous decoration.”–Time Out London

(This movie was nominated for review by Brian, who explained “Don’t be put off by its Merchant/Ivory parentage; this was quite early in their career and one of the main brains behind it was the late weird Michael O’Donoghue, the famed Mr. Mike of National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live fame.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

6*. SHE’S ALLERGIC TO CATS (2016)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Sonja Kinski, Flula Borg, Honey Davis

PLOT: Mike Pinkney is an aspiring director living in East Hollywood, where he dreams of making his passion project: a remake of Carrie featuring an all-cat cast. No one is interested in his work, so he makes ends meet by working as a dog groomer, where he meets a beautiful woman who improbably agrees to go out on a date with him. Unfortunately, his run-down rental house suffers from a rat infestation that threatens to ruin his big chance with his dream girl.

Still from She's Allergic to Cats (2016)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Michael Reich and star Mike Pinkney had previously worked as co-directors on music videos for Ryan Adams, the Shins, My Chemical Romance, Yuck, and other bands.
  • Reich wrote the part explicitly for Pinkney. They took acting classes together to prepare, which is where they met Sonja (daughter of Nastassja, granddaughter of ) Kinski.
  • The movie was shot in Reich’s own house and neighborhood. Honey Davis, who plays the landlord in the movie, was Reich’s landlord at the time.
  • Parts of She’s Allergic to Cats were inspired by director’s Michael Reich’s work as a dog groomer in Hollywood, where he expressed the anal glands of pooches belonging to George Carlin and , among other celebrities.
  • It took the movie four years from its film festival debut to finally be released on video-on-demand.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Take your pick from two briefly glimpsed images from the climactic montage: a naked woman holding a bowl of rotting bananas while rats crawl over her, or a naked woman whose upper half is a banana. We’ll accept either answer. (If you’re looking for a non-nude pick, Sonja Kinski posing seductively with a DVD of Congo is your go to).

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Sensual dog grooming instructional video; anal gland expression

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In She’s Allergic to Cats, dog groomer Mike Pinkney bashfully confesses to “making weird video art that nobody wants to watch.” He’s wrong. Somebody wants to watch this portrait of a pathetic artist struggling to make an all-cat version of Carrie while dealing with a rat infestation and an internal video monologue that consists of glitchy nightmares run through a circa 1989 public access AV board. That somebody is you.


Original trailer for She’s Allergic to Cats

COMMENTS: The old writer’s cliche is to “write what you know.” The danger of this advice, of course, is that, if every aspiring writer  Continue reading 6*. SHE’S ALLERGIC TO CATS (2016)

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)