Tag Archives: Surrealism

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: DECASIA (2002)

Also see Alfred Eaker’s take on Decasia

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Uncredited documentary subjects

PLOT: Scored to a disturbing minimalist composition, a parade of early 20th century images on decayed and damaged film stock march across the screen, forming hypnotic abstract landscapes.

Still from Decasia (2002)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: We avoided the hypnotic experimental documentary subgenre on our first pass through the List of the Weirdest Movies ever made, because this peculiar corner of art films normally wed an unusual (weird) form to commonplace (not-weird) subject matter. When it comes to honoring movies as Apocrypha, however, it’s harder to argue that formally groundbreaking movies like Koyaanisqatsi—and this one—can be excluded from being considered among the strangest things the mind of man has come up with.

COMMENTS: A boxer punches an amoeba. A man in a fez prays at a mummy’s tomb, in negative image. A lone airplane flies through the sky, almost perfectly centered in a wavering iris puncturing the darkness. Nuns and schoolchildren strobe in and out of existence. The screen is filled with nothing more than a billowing cloud. Abstract patterns whir by, almost looking as if they were drawn by hand—a butterfly here, a flower petal there—and fade away to reveal a shy geisha.

Experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison scoured over what must have been thousands of hours of partially decayed stock footage to select the most wondrous and poetic images time accidentally created. A complete taxonomy of film damage is on display here. Images sometimes decay from the center outward, sometimes from the edges inward. Frequently, the film is warped so that abstract cracked lines obscure the underlying picture, but often the effects are more surprising. Individual stills might look like gibberish, but because each frame of film holds a slightly different piece of information about the whole, when the series is run through a projector, ghostly figures emerge. The visuals often resemble ‘s splatter-paint-on-the-celluloid experiments, except that the effects here have been created entirely by the natural degradation of cellulose.

Decasia‘s reliance on a minimalist classical music score obviously recalls ‘s time-lapse documentaries. But whereas Philip Glass’ work on the “Qatsi trilogy” of films was smooth and dreamy, Michael Gordon’s composition is dissonant and confrontational. Low strings create a ceaseless rhythm, while violins fall through microtonal scales in a long, slow decay. Horns enter the mix like distant alarms. Gordon specified that certain instruments in the Basel Sinfonetta be deliberately out of tune. In keeping with the theme of recycling, he used discarded car brake drums he found in a junkyard as an instrument, along with detuned pianos. His intent, he said, was to “make the orchestra sound like it was covered in cobwebs, with instruments that had been sitting for a hundred years, creaky and warped and deteriorated” The uncomfortable but still beautiful sounds divert our thoughts to the darker implications of the pictures dancing and disintegrating before our eyes. The music and the images exist in such a perfect, unconscious  symbiosis that it’s meaningless to wonder which came first.

Decasia is an authentically Surrealist documentary. The startling images have all been generated via a random process, with the interpretation up to the individual viewer. Everyone in these film clips is long dead, and soon the damaged images themselves will fade away to nothing. And yet, the experience is marvelous, not depressing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The unexpected thing is that its dying, in this shower of black-and-white psychedelia, is quite beautiful.”–Anita Gates, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

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

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BUFFET FROID (1979)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bertrand Blier

FEATURING: , Bernard Blier, Jean Carmet, ,

PLOT: A man in the Metro confesses his fantasies about killing strangers to a stranger; a surreal series of casual murders follows, most occurring over the course of a single long night.

Still from Buffet Froid (1979)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This dreamlike and absurd black comedy about murder may be the most Buñuelian movie never made.1)The comparison is hardly diminished by the presence of actresses Geneviève Page (Belle de Jour) and Carole Bouquet (just off That Obscure Object of Desire).

COMMENTS: “Don’t you ever get odd ideas?”, young and unemployed Alphonse (Depardieu) asks a stranger in the Paris Metro. Director Bertrand Blier has plenty of odd ideas, most of them revolving around murder and his characters’ blasé reactions to the ultimate crime. It turns out Alphonse may, or may not, have killed the accountant he met in the subway—but no one seems to care. His wife merely throws his bloody switchblade in the dishwasher.  He goes to his new neighbor, who just happens to be a police inspector, to report the death, but the man is off duty and can’t be bothered. Another murderer shows up at his doorway and Alphonse invites him in for dinner and a glass of wine. Then, through a series of dreamlike coincidences, the inspector and the killer join Alphonse on a murder spree—if such a laid-back, stumbling affair can be called a “spree,” and if some of the mysterious killings qualify as “murder.”

For the most part, the film’s events occur over one long, endless night—with perhaps a nap or two—before a sunlit epilogue in the French countryside. Characters never show up unless they are needed as killers, victims, or witnesses—there are no extras waiting for trains in the Metro, the Paris streets are deserted, and even the skyscraper that houses Alphonse’s apartment is totally uninhabited except for him, his wife, and the newly-arrived Inspector. Alphonse, and the other characters, also complain about the cold—they never seem to be able to get warm. Perhaps they are feeling the chill of the grave?

Alphonse is the dreamer who has an inkling that he might be dreaming—he is the only one who (occasionally) wonders what’s going on, who finds it odd that no one seems to care that he might be a murderer. Everyone else accepts the ever-shifting social dynamics with the calm acceptance of someone living in a dream. The acting is utterly deadpan and droll. A man is tortured by being exposed to a string quintet. Alphonse mentions that he has nightmares that last all night where he is wanted for murder and chased by the police. Perversely, in the nightmare script that plays out, the police don’t hunt him, but abet his ambiguous crimes. Some of it is a black satire on modern alienation, but the surrealism of the scenario speaks to deeper fears—death is the only sure constant in this movie where caprice otherwise rules the night.

Buffet Froid flopped (commercially) on its release, wasn’t screened in the U.S. for seven years, and is barely distributed today. It is reportedly a cult film in France, but that doesn’t do much for the rest of us. I was able to find it on the free-streaming service Kanopy (which requires membership at a a participating public or university library—and the catalog my differ depending on your supplier).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A blackly surreal procession of amoral and/or illegal acts…  producing a cherishably Buñuelian depiction of the far-from-discreet crimes of the bourgeoisie.”–Time Out London

(This movie was nominated for review by “Dwarf Oscar,” who called it an “an absurd and deadpan comedy that gained a cult status here in France.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

References   [ + ]

1. The comparison is hardly diminished by the presence of actresses Geneviève Page (Belle de Jour) and Carole Bouquet (just off That Obscure Object of Desire).

CAPSULE: THE LAST MOVIE (1971)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Stella Garcia,

PLOT: A stuntman stays on in Peru with his mistress after his American movie crew has moved on, and is involuntarily cast in a movie the locals are making with fake cameras.

Still from The Last Movie (1971)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The initial critical assessment of The Last Movie said it was a stumbling, self-indulgent mess of random, stoned footage that director/star Dennis Hopper tried (and failed) to salvage by editing it into something resembling a ian Western. Now that years have passed and we can reappraise the work from a more sober perspective, we can see that this knee-jerk reaction was absolutely correct. It’s half-baked Surrealism, with the emphasis on the “baked.”

COMMENTS: So here’s how I like to imagine the making of The Last Movie went. “Dennis, you’re a genius, and ‘Easy Rider’ made a gazillion dollars, so let’s fly to Peru and make a Western about Hollywood types going to Peru to make a Western!” (Puff.) “Get a crate of whiskey! He can play the director.” (Glug.) “Great! Sam, now shoot a bunch of Western-type scenes, put a guy in jail, get some dancing girls to do the can-can, blow some stuff up. Doesn’t matter what you shoot, there’s no plot. It’s not a real movie.” (Puff.) “Kris, can you play us ‘Me and Booby McGee’ while Dennis rides a horse? Cool.” (Glug.) “OK, everybody get drunk and we’ll film it. Dennis, cry a little.” (Puff.) “Wait, it’s been 25 minutes, did we remember the opening credits? Throw ’em up on screen while Dennis and his chick kiss in a field.” (Puff.) “OK, now let’s have the villagers film some scenes using cameras made out of bamboo… see, they can’t tell the difference between reality and the movies anymore. Did I just blow your mind?” (Snort.) “Damn, that’s some fine Peruvian coke. Get that chick naked in that waterfall, Dennis wants to make out with her!” (Puff.) “Throw in a ‘scene missing’ intertitle at random. Remind ’em it’s a movie.”  (Puff.) “I know what we need: a gold mining subplot! It’ll be, like, a metaphor for Hollywood!” (Glug.) “Let’s all get drunk and go to a brothel.” (Next day.) “Let’s film a scene where everyone gets drunk and goes to a brothel.” (Sniff.) “Wait, is that ether? Let’s have Dennis try to get a fur coat from this guy’s wifuuuh sajkagkudsigkuytadijah… bluh… panties.” (Puff.) “We still got some time? Gold mining expedition montage.” (Sip, looong puff.) “I think I’m peaking… what was in that tea? Anyway now the villagers are shooting the movie for real with live ammo and they put Dennis in jail and shoot him while he rides away on his horse and he gets drunk and slaps some whores and no one will believe he’s actually in a movie cause they’re too busy making a movie and he stumbles into a church and then a woman lactates on his face and the villagers throw a fiesta with fireworks and let’s have Dennis confess to the priest that he sinned ‘in movies,’ and then everyone gets drunk and Dennis dies for their sins, but he does a couple of takes, because it’s a movie.” (Puff, glug.) “Did we remember to tie up that gold mining subplot? Let’s close with a scene with two guys by a campfire talking about whether you need mercury to pan for gold. Just improvise. Has anyone seen my Quaaludes?”

And then Dennis Hopper takes all the footage back to his shack in New Mexico and drops acid and starts editing it together. Then his good friend shows up and looks at the rough cut and says “Dennis, it’s good, but it makes too much sense. You need to put all these scenes in random order.” And then Dennis passes out on the editing machine.

I kid The Last Movie, but there’s one thing that can be said for it: absolutely no drugs were spared in its making.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the all-time classics of pretentiously incomprehensible cinema.”–Radio Times

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