Tag Archives: Surrealism

SLAPHAPPY VOLUME 8: SURREAL COMEDY

The “SlapHappy Volume 8 Collection: Surreal Comedy” must be unreservedly recommended for making available  rare, hidden fragments from surreal cinema’s infancy.  It’s not everyday one gets to see J. Stewart Blackton’s 1908 Thieving Hand which pre-dates the later, similar theme of a wayward, disembodied hand  found in films like The Beast with Five Fingers (which Buñuel worked on during his brief Hollywood stint).

The Thieving Hand

The Thieving Hand (1908)

Edwin S. Porter collections aren’t  exactly a dime a dozen either, so 1906’s Melies-inspired Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, based on the famous Windsor McCay comic strip, is possibly the highlight here.  The sight of something akin to Linda Blaire’s bed engaged in a Dickens-like flight across a city skyscape is well worth the price.  Today, Fiend is possibly the most interesting of Porter’s vast but not entirely distinguished output, certainly much more so than some of the historically better known films such as  Life of an American Fireman.

The team of Richard M. Roberts, Larry Stefan and Paul Lisy have certainly done thorough research and a number of delightfully rare oddities are compiled here: Eddie Lyon’s 1923 Hot Foot; Bobby Dunn ajd Ferdinand Zecca’s 1910 Slippery Jim , Edward F. Cline’s 1925 Dangerous Curves Behind, and the 1948 Fresh Lobster with Billie Bletcher.

Still, despite the glimpses of rare treasures here, SlapHappy Volume 8 falls short of being the ideal collection.  These are indeed mere glimpses, clips culled from the films, and since most of these are shorts, presenting these films in their entirety could have been easily accomplished and would have been much more desirable.

The SlapHappy producers, in following the formulaic recipe of their series, short-changed the potential of what could have been their most valuable volume.

Stills from films like Keaton’s The Playhouse are utilized, but there no actual clips. Instead, excerpts from lesser, more obvious, on the surface examples of Keaton’s ventures into surrealism are shown (Buster running into dangling skeletons, etc) simply because these are more obvious; a bit like Salvador Dali being held up as the quintessential persona over considerably more substantial surrealists such as Max Ernst and Paul Klee.

The producers’ goal, as Sam Charles’  narration indicates, is focused on early surreal comedy–as opposed to early surrealism–but even here, it falls short of being the reference volume.  An extraordinary amount of time is given to the weaker Fresh Lobster, when much more time could have been devoted to Zecca’s far more compelling Slippery Jim (Zecca was an editor for Melies, and it shows), the films of Charley Bowers, or numerous, much more substantial examples of early surreal comedy (Chaplin’s surreal heavenly dream sequence from The Kid, Keaton’s The Navigator, The Frozen North, Sherlock Jr, or Beckett’s Film are just a few of the better known examples).

Surreal Comedy is an all too brief entry, abbreviated to make room for the Getting the Girl and Chaplin bonuses, both of which contain footage found elsewhere. Still, Volume 8 is a valuable but unimaginative introduction to the art of early surreal comedy that ultimately falls short of being the priceless collection it could have been.

22. ERASERHEAD (1977)

“He showed me this little script he had written for Eraserhead.  It was only a few pages with this weird imagery and not much dialogue and this baby kind of thing.”–Jack Nance

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DIRECTED BY

FEATURING: ,

PLOT:  Henry is a factory worker living in a dingy apartment in a desolate urban nowhere. His girlfriend Mary’s mother informs him the girl has given birth to his child—although Mary objects, “Mother, they’re still not sure it is a baby!” Henry and Mary get married and care for the monstrous, reptilian, constantly crying infant until Mary can take no more and deserts the family, leaving Henry alone to care for the mutant and to dream of the oatmeal-faced woman who lives inside his radiator and sings to him about the delights of heaven.

eraserhead

BACKGROUND:

  • Eraserhead was started with a $10,000 grant from the American Film Institute while Lynch was a student at their conservatory. Initially, the 21 or 22 page script was intended to run about 40 minutes. Lynch kept adding details, like the Lady in the Radiator (who was not in the original script), and the movie eventually took five years to complete.
  • When Lynch ran out of money from the AFI, the actress Sissy Spacek and her husband, Hollywood production designer Jack Fisk, contributed money to help complete the film. Fisk also played the role of the Man in the Planet.
  • Lynch slept in the set used for Henry’s apartment for a year while making the film.
  • After the initial screening, Lynch cut 20 minutes off of the film. Little of the excised footage survives.
  • Eraserhead was originally distributed by Ben Barenholtz’s Libra Films and was marketed as a “midnight movie” like their previous underground sensation, El Topo (1970).
  • Based on the success of Eraserhead, Lynch was invited to create the mainstream drama The Elephant Man (1980)  for Paramount, a huge critical success for which he received the first of his three “Best Director” nominations at the Academy Awards.
  • Jack Nance had at least a small role in four other Lynch movies, and played Pete Martell in Lynch’s television series, “Twin Peaks.”  His scenes in the movie adaptation Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) were deleted. Nance died in 1997 after being struck in the head in an altercation at a doughnut shop.
  • Lynch has written that when he was having difficulty with the direction the production was heading, he read a Bible verse that tied the entire vision together for him, although he has refused to cite the verse and in a recent interview actually claims to have forgotten it.
  • Winner of this site’s 2019 Mad Movie Tournament as the most popular weird movie ever made.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The iconic image is Henry, wearing that expression permanently lodged between the quizzical and the horrified, with the peak of his absurd pompadour glowing in the light as suspended eraser shavings float and glitter behind him. Of course, Eraserhead is nothing if not a series of indelible images, so others may find the scarred man who sits by the broken window, the mutant infant, or the girl in the radiator to be the vision that haunts their nightmares.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Eraserhead is probably the greatest recreation of a nightmare ever filmed, a marvelous and ambiguous mix of private and cosmic secrets torn from the subconscious. Or, as Lynch puts it, it’s “a dream of dark and disturbing things.”


Clip from Eraserhead

COMMENTS:  When you tell people you are interested in “weird” movies, I’d wager at least half Continue reading 22. ERASERHEAD (1977)

SIGNE BAUMANE: WOMAN

“Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema” is a column published on Thursdays covering truly independent cinema: the stuff that’s so far under the public radar it may as well be underground.  The folks making these films may be starving artists today, but they may be recognized as geniuses tomorrow.  We hope to look like geniuses ourselves by being the first to cover them.

“When I don’t think about film, I think about sex.  Every 10 seconds.  I have the sense that my head is very close to my genitals.”  So speaks Latvian animator Signe Baumane in the documentary Signe and…. It’s part of an indispensable and unique collection of Baumane’s animated shorts called Ten Animated Films by Signe Baumane.

teat_beat_of_sex

True to her word, there is sex aplenty in most of the films in this collection, including her recent Teat Beat of Sex, and  Baumane goes a long way to prove obsession in art is indeed a good thing.

In Natasha, a lonely housewife finds a vacuum cleaner is just as effective as any man.  In Five F___king Fables the head of a decapitated princess gives a man oral while a dog performs cunnilingus on her, penises do indeed come in every shape, size, color and form, and Georgia O’Keefe’s erotic flowers are taken to a whole new level.  These are just a few of  the repeated erotic images and themes that make up Baumane’s world.

Baumane is refreshingly open and candid in the documentary Signe and… Her sexuality is naturally frank, while never being worn on sleeve.  Her work never condescends to the level of shock for the sake of shock art, as a few critics have claimed, because feminine sexuality is but one of several recurring obsessive themes.

Baumane’s horror of the dentist chair is visited repeatedly.  The Dentist and Five Infomercials for Dentists amusingly call to mind W.C. Fields’ take on the subject matter.

Baumane is most compelling in allegorical territory.  Tiny Shoes visits a theme often repeated in classic literature such as “Hymn of the Pearl.”  A girl is given specific instructions from her dying father and, after his death, she embarks upon a journey, during which she forgets her promise and ignores all of her father’s instructions.  Naturally, her foolishness will cost her plenty, but this is served up Signe Baumane style, Continue reading SIGNE BAUMANE: WOMAN

20. GUMMO (1997)

“When I saw a piece of fried bacon fixed to the bathroom wall in Gummo, it knocked me off my chair.”–Werner Herzog

DIRECTED BY: Harmony Korine

FEATURING: Chloë Sevigny, Jacob Reynolds, non-professionals chosen for their freakish looks

PLOT:  A tornado devastated the town of Xenia, Ohio in the 1970s.  Twenty years later, a teenager (Tummler) and a younger tagalong (Solomon) hunt feral cats, selling them to the local grocer for money they use to buy sniffing glue and trysts with a fat, mentally disabled prostitute.  Meanwhile, other white-trash characters roam the landscape unsupervised, including two trashy teen girls who seem to be raising their kid sister and a shirtless mute boy who wears pink bunny ears.

gummo

BACKGROUND:

  • Harmony Korine (who is male) had previously written script for Kids (1995). He was given $1.5 million and free reign by Fine Line Features (the now-defunct “independent” branch of New Line Pictures) to create exactly the picture he wanted to.
  • A devastating tornado really did hit Xenia, OH in 1974.
  • Gummo was the fifth Marx brother, who left the group before they began their successful film career.
  • Although critical reaction was largely negative (scoring a disappointing 29% on Rotten Tomatoes tomatomer at press time), several established directors—Werner Herzog, Bernardo Bertolucci, Jean-Luc Godard, Gus Van Sant, and Erol Morris—expressed admiration and support for the picture.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  No one forgets the scene of Solomon eating spaghetti and chocolate in the grimy bathtub with oily green water (with, as Werner Herzog marveled, bacon taped to the walls).  The most illustrative image, however, may be when “Bunny Boy” (the shirtless waif wearing pink bunny ears) thrusts a dead cat at the camera.  This vision brings to mind the act of this director presenting this work to his audience.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDGummo looks a lot like what might result if someone took home movies from that embarrassing, welfare-addicted branch of the family no one likes to talk about and mixed them in a blender with the final project short films from the NYU Film School graduating class of ’97.

Trailer for Gummo

COMMENTS: Gummo is an exasperating film that compels the viewer mainly through the odd Continue reading 20. GUMMO (1997)

18. NAKED LUNCH (1991)

“It’s impossible to make a movie out of ‘Naked Lunch.’ A literal translation just wouldn’t work. It would cost $400 million to make and would be banned in every country of the world.” –David Cronenberg

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DIRECTED BY: David Cronenberg

FEATURING:  Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Julian Sands

PLOT:  Bill Lee is a writer/exterminator in New York City whose wife begins mainlining the bug powder he uses to kill roaches, and convinces him to try it as well. He becomes addicted to the powder, and one night shoots his wife dead while playing “William Tell.” Lee goes on the lam and lands in Interzone, an exotic free zone reminiscent of Tangier or Casablanca (but which may exist only in his mind), where he begins taking ever more powerful drugs and typing out “reports” partially dictated to him by his living, insectoid typewriter.

Naked Lunch (1991) still

BACKGROUND:

  • William S. Burroughs’s original novel Naked Lunch was selected as one of the 100 best English language novels written after 1923 by Time magazine.
  • The novel was held not to be obscene by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 1966. This was the final obscenity prosecution of a literary work in the United States; there would be no subsequent censorship of the written word (standing alone).
  • Several directors had considered filming the novel before David Cronenberg got the project. Avant-garde director Anthony Balch wanted to adapt it as a musical (with Burroughs’s blessing), and actually got as far as storyboarding the project and getting a commitment from Mick Jagger (who later backed out) to star. Among others briefly interested in adapting the novel in some form were Terry Southern, John Huston, Frank Zappa, and Terry Gilliam.
  • Because the novel was essentially a plotless series of hallucinatory vignettes (what Burroughs called “routines’), David Cronenberg chose to make the movie a thinly veiled tale about Burroughs’s writing of the novel, incorporating only a few of the actual characters and incidents from the book. Actors in the film portray real-life writers and Burroughs associates Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Paul and Jane Bowles.
  • The episode in the film where Lee accidentally shoots his wife while performing the “William Tell routine” is taken from Burroughs real life: he actually shot his common law wife while performing a similar trick in a Mexican bar. Burroughs felt tremendous guilt through his life for the accident and has said “I would have never become a writer but for Joan’s death.”
  • Naked Lunch won seven awards at the Genie Awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars), including Best Movie and Best Director.
  • Producer Jeremy Thomas has somewhat specialized in bringing weird and unusual fare to the largest possible audience, producing not only Naked Lunch but also Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) and Tideland (2005).
  • Following a definite theme for the year, Judy Davis also played an author’s muse and lover in another surrealistic 1991 movie about a tortured writer, Barton Fink.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Clark Nova, Lee’s territorial, talking typewriter, who alternately guides and torments the writer. He’s a beetle who has somehow evolved a QWERTY keyboard as an organ. When he speaks, he lifts his wings to reveal a sphincter through which he dictates his directives.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It begins with an exterminator who does his rounds wearing a three piece suit and fedora. His philosophy is to “exterminate all rational thought.” His wife steals his insecticide and injects it into her breast to get high, and gets him hooked on the bug power, too. A pair of cops question him on suspicion of possessing dangerous narcotics, and leave him alone in the interrogation room with a huge talking “caseworker” bug who explains that his wife is an agent of Interzone, Incorporated, and is not even human. And this is just the setup, before the film turns really weird.


Original trailer for Naked Lunch

COMMENTS:  Make no mistake: Naked Lunch is clearly David Cronenberg’s movie, not Continue reading 18. NAKED LUNCH (1991)

CAPSULE: ELEVATOR MOVIE (2004)

NOTE: Elevator Movie has been promoted to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Commenting is closed on this review, which is left here for archival purposes. Please visit Elevator Movie‘s Certified Weird entry to comment on this film.

DIRECTED BY:  Zeb Haradon

FEATURING:  Zeb Haradon, Robin Ballard

PLOT:  A socially maladjusted college student and a reformed slut turned Jesus freak are elevator_movie

trapped in an elevator together–impossibly, for weeks on end.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Quite possibly, Elevator Movie will make the overall list of 366 movies; I reserve the right to revisit it in the future.  By mixing Sartre’s “No Exit” with an ultra-minimalist riff on Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, garnished with large dollops of sexual perversity, writer/director/star Zeb Haradon has created one of the weirder underground movies of recent years.  Unfortunately, in a demanding two character piece that requires top-notch, nuanced dramatic performances to succeed, Haradon’s acting talent isn’t up to the level of his imagination and screenwriting ability.  The resulting film looks like an “A-” film school final project: it tantalizingly promises more than it’s capable of delivering. 

COMMENTS:  Zeb Haradon is definitely a writer to keep an eye on.  The script of Elevator Movie, though not perfect (it misses a few precious opportunities to ratchet the tension and drama up to stratospheric levels), is far and away the movie’s greatest asset.  Haradon takes a very threadbare set of motifs (most notably, infantile Freudian sexuality) and pushes them as far as he can.  This two-character, one setting drama could have been intolerably boring for the first few reels as it builds to its crashingly surreal climax, but Haradon manages to keep us interested by slowly revealing new facets of the characters and keeping up a reasonable tension as Jim and Lana struggle to reconcile their need for intimacy with their complete incompatibility and diametrically opposed agendas.  This could have been a masterpiece, had the actors been able to carry off the monumental task the script sets up for them.  Robin Ballard is passable in the easier role of Lana, but Haradon is almost unforgivably subdued as Jim.  Jim is passive, so some of the wimpiness of the characterization is intentional, but when he needs to project a menacing, seething passion subdued under a calm exterior, he can’t pull it off.  Therefore, at times the inherent dramatic conflict tails off into a bland “OK, OK”, just as Jim’s voice does when Lana once again rejects his advances. 

The images in Elevator Movie, largely scatological and sexual but also involving some brief animal cruelty, are not for the meek.  That said, some of these shocking images, and the surprising but perfect ending, can resonate a horrid fascination for a long time afterwards.  That’s what makes Elevator Movie come so achingly near to being a great weird movie.  Even with qualifications, it’s definitely worth a look for the Eraserhead set.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As a champion of ‘Eraserhead’, ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’, ‘Naked Lunch’, and ‘Back Against the Wall’, all fine films that downright bask in their toxicity to the homogenized masses, I found Haradon’s film to be unique and fascinating and a most worthy addition to the midnight movie circuit. Just don’t ask me to spend any longer in Haradon’s mind than I have to in any one sitting. It’s very likely I’d never make it out!”–Daniel Wible, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: W THE MOVIE (2008)

twostar

DIRECTED BY: Alfred Eaker & Ross St. Just

FEATURING: Alfred Eaker, PinkFreud

PLOT: “W” appears in a meteorite in the Arizona desert, steals the election for

Still from W: The Movie (2008)

the party of No, and becomes a tyrant opposed by liberal reporter BlueMahler.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  With half the characters distinguished by facepaint that makes them look like either World Wrestling Federation rejects or members of a failed 70s revival glam band, acting in front of shifting psychedelic computer-generated backdrops, this surrealist satire of George W. Bush’s presidency is definitely weird enough to make the list.  The problem is that, as a polemic against the 43rd President of the United States, it comes with an expiration date.  It’s too particular and too parochial, both in terms of subject matter and target audience, to earn a final place on a list of 366 representative weird movies.

COMMENTS:  Because it is a vehemently partisan mockery of a former President, as opposed to a generic political satire, W the Movie is difficult to review.  Your reaction may depend on your politics; the far left might applaud it as a hilarious send-up of a dangerous political hack, those on the right may be outraged (and personally insulted), or simply dismiss it as liberal piffle.  Moderates and fence-sitters are unlikely to be swayed.  All sides will recognize it as deliberately unfair; Bush’s foibles are exaggerated past the point of absurdity.  W is cruel, crude and stupid, and at his most decisive when he demands his pancakes with “lots of syrup”; his foil, BlueMahler, is brave and righteous, and his only character flaw is neglecting his wife and son as he devotes his life to exposing the truth about the alien demagogue and his infernal war.  W the Movie makes the work of Michael Moore (who himself makes as appearance as a ghostlike, babbling puppet) look fair and balanced.  There’s a place in the film world for narrowly political art and clever character assassination, and in this sense the producers are to be commended for not fearing to enter the fray, take sides, and name names.

But, polarizing political content aside, there’s quite a bit to be admired in the low-budget production.  It’s an excellent example of how a unique, almost mesmerizing visual style can be forged through CGI on the cheap, when artistic effect and atmosphere is placed above the fetish for strict realism.  About 90% of the film was shot in front of a green-screen, and memorable virtual sets include W riding on a missile against a cloudscape (a la Dr. Strangelove), W worshipping at an altar of giant gold coins, and an amusing black and white parody sequence with W in Ford’s Theater.  The effect is a bit like the old studio-bound pictures of the 30s and 40s, where the backgrounds were matte paintings, but modern technology combined with a hallucinogenic vision makes these brightly colored living mattes slip, morph and shift before the viewer’s eye.  Therefore, the film is constantly interesting to the eye, even when the plot gets difficult to follow. Furthermore, Eaker does quite well in multiple roles, including both W and his nemesis BlueMahler. Actors cast in smaller roles range from adequate to distracting.  The humor is also uneven, ranging from the highly effective (the Ford’s Theater scene) to the painfully embarrassing (the 9/11 tragedy is used as an excuse for cheap jokes about W’s pro-life stance and lack of geographical acumen).  More genuine funny and fewer pointed potshots would have made it a happier movie experience.  All in all, W‘s well worth checking out, but if you’re to the right of Obama politically, you may want to check your party of No pin at the door.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this is one seriously messed up flick and… I mean that in the best possible way… wild and wonderful, weird and whacked out.”–Richard Propes, The Independent Critic

4/23/09 UPDATE: W the Movie won the “Best Experimental Feature” award at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival.

7/22/10 UPDATE: For a limited time, we are screening “W” for free on YouTube. Enjoy!