Tag Archives: Surrealism

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SAVAGES (1972)

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Weirdest!

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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Recommended

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)

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, it’s 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)