Tag Archives: surrealism

Do the Loco-Motion

By Andreas

David Lynch has always enjoyed dragging pop music into his cesspools of sinister weirdness. There’s “In Heaven” in Eraserhead, “In Dreams” in Blue Velvet, “Love Me Tender” in Wild at Heart, “Llorando” in Mulholland Drive—you get the idea. So I really shouldn’t have been surprised when, in the middle of Lynch’s most recent feature INLAND EMPIRE (2006), a gang of maybe-prostitutes started dancing to Little Eva’s recording of “The Loco-Motion.”

And of course, this is David Lynch we’re talking about, so it’s not just an impromptu dance number. Anything but. The dancers’ brassy enthusiasm for the dance makes it kind of funny, but any comedy is drowned out by the aura of vague menace: it’s in the dazed look of horror on Laura Dern’s face as she watches; the abrasively flashing lights; and the nearly subliminal intrusion of hushed industrial noise onto the soundtrack.

INLAND EMPIRE is in many ways a surrealist horror movie, and a creeping horror infects this carefree dance. Like at the end, when all the dancers vanish into thin air, leaving behind an empty, blandly decorated room and a world-weary Laura Dern. (They’ll be back, of course, to persecute her and to share long, stilted conversations about sex.) It’s never overtly scary, but it is uncanny and off-putting. It’s mesmerizing in its frightful ambiguity, as if an unstated riddle was lurking inside the choreography.

This is one reason why David Lynch is a genius, and why his movies crawl under my skin: he doesn’t just set up polarities. This scene isn’t just a juxtaposition of a benevolent song with malevolent visuals. It’s a diabolical imbrication of song, dancer, dance—every aspect of the soundtrack and mise-en-scène, and all their associated value sets. Nothing’s solely trustworthy, and nothing’s solely evil. Everything is tentative. Everything’s kind of silly.

(For what it’s worth, INLAND EMPIRE also contains one of the scariest images I’ve ever seen.)

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In Heaven, Everything Is Fine

In Lynchland, though, it’s a different story altogether. That’s because this week’s entry in The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series is David Lynch’s bombshell of a first feature, Eraserhead (1977). If you only know one thing about Eraserhead and its imagery, it should be this: they’re gross and disturbing. In Lynch’s distorted vision of human relationships, sexual anxieties get literalized with all the oozing pus and foam you could ask for. It’s the kind of movie that makes me go, “Ew! Ew! No! Put down those scissors!” for like a solid minute. Compared to all those grotesque mutations, my choice for best shot is relatively innocuous:

At this point in the film, protagonist Henry Spencer’s wife Mary is all fed up with their mutant baby’s constant yammering, so she’s moved back in with her parents. With her away, Henry takes a chance on the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall, and they start getting intimate… when the Beautiful Girl spots that icky, whining baby. On the most basic level, then, this shot is about how much of a turn-off babies (especially mutant babies) are. The second Henry’s paramour gets an eyeful of his weird-looking offspring, she goes back across the hall, and he remains sexually frustrated for the rest of the film.

It’s also very visually striking. Like the rest of Eraserhead, it’s shot with extremely low lighting and low contrast, so it’s hard to tell where Henry’s face ends and the Beautiful Girl’s face begins. It’s like we’re gazing down at a fleshy nocturnal landscape. (It also reminds me of René Magritte’s painting The Kiss.) These two distinctly unhappy people look for some pleasure by frantically groping and kissing one another—but in Eraserhead‘s sick world, it’s never that easy. It’s all too appropriate, in a film that represents sex as a disgusting ordeal of writhing and fluids, for this little tryst to end with the Beautiful Girl’s eyes bulging out in terror.

In Eraserhead, everything’s ever so slightly off-kilter, psychologically and visually. No one talks like real people, and nothing looks quite like its real-world analogue. This makes the tiny resemblances to real life that much scarier. In Henry and Mary’s dysfunctional relationship, in their screaming baby, in the depressing emptiness of their apartment, and in the utter gloominess of their environment, we can see little echoes of very real horrors and everyday problems.

In the image above (my second-favorite shot), the perpetually put-upon Henry raises his eyebrow; his misery is tinged, for once, with curiosity. In the background, Mary clings to a door while her father, the impotent patriarch, perches at the head of the table. (His face is obscured by Henry’s strange, massive hair.) This is Lynch’s perverse take on the nuclear family and their domestic milieu. This shot’s just barely canted, with the composition and the many shades of gray geared to indicate that something’s, well, off. Get out, Henry. Get out while you still can.

I’ll end with an illustration of Eraserhead‘s overwhelming ickiness, as Henry is enveloped by a metaphor for his own sexual anxieties. I have one word for this: YUCK.

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Harpo’s Tattoos

By Andreas

The Marx Brothers’ masterpiece Duck Soup has many moments of utter, off-the-wall, WTF-inspiring surrealism, but this one tops them all. How could any other visual gag, no matter how inspired, ever compete with the sublime madness of a real-live dog poking its head out of Harpo’s chest? Yes, the scene where Harpo hides fully dressed in a bathtub underneath an unsuspecting, naked Edgar Kennedy is pretty weird, and so is Harpo callously hacking up Kennedy’s clothes with a pair of scissors. (Noticing a trend here?)

But come on: it’s a dog emerging from a tattoo in the middle of Harpo’s chest and barking in Groucho’s face. That’s an absolutely baffling non sequitur on the order of the “Large Marge” scene in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, the kind that leaves you reeling for a couple minutes afterward. The kind that lets you know that the rules are no longer in effect—that you are not watching a “normal” movie. In both these examples, it’s because inventive camera techniques have been used to subvert “reality,” letting us know that we’re entering a realm where literally anything is possible. If they can dream it, they can film it.

This scene has another very strange, unexpected dimension: it’s slightly homoerotic (and therefore incestuous). After all, we get a few solid minutes of Harpo showing off his body to an inquisitive Groucho, starting with his tattooed arms and his hip (see above), which bears a phone number. Harpo eagerly bares his chest while maintaining that maniacal grin, then Groucho puts his mouth right next to the tattoo and meows. “Weird” doesn’t really begin to cover it. The barking dog is really just the icing on the cake—and while most movies would showcase the dog’s appearance as audaciously avant-garde, in Duck Soup it’s just one more punchline, delivered with little fanfare.

In fact, we get one more bizarre, quasi-sexual joke as Groucho declares, “I’ll betcha haven’t got a picture of my grandfather,” and Harpo leaps to take off his pants and expose his ass before Groucho stops him. This scene’s ambiguous sexual tension is very understated, but unmistakable: Harpo is communicating through a surreal, bit-by-bit striptease while his brother marvels at his strange body, getting closer and closer. So both the formal and sexual aspects of this scene are further proof that in the world of Duck Soup, all bets are off. Nothing is off the table. If you didn’t learn that during the film’s first half-hour, you have now!

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Let’s play “Explain the joke!”

My review of Hellzapoppin’ – a riotous comedy directed by H.C. Potter, which stars Ole Olsen & Chic Johnson – was published over at 366 Weird Movies today. In honor of that fact, let’s play a little game. Given an image from this wacky, off-the-wall film, I’ll try to explain what’s happening. Let’s begin, shall we?

This one’s relatively easy. The film’s opening sequence is a cheery song-and-dance number set in hell, and these are demons tormenting damned souls. That’s Angelo Rossitto (he of Freaks, The Corpse Vanishes, and more) playing the giddy devil brandishing a pitchfork. You wouldn’t know from this picture, but the film’s representation of hell is partially a comment on the nation’s entry into World War II, with references to the draft (“CANNED GUY”) and munitions factories.

While still in hell, Chic accidentally blows up a taxi and – bear with me – the driver inside turns into a jockey on top of a horse. The horse has an incomplete tic-tac-toe game on its ass. Out of nowhere, a man rushes down and finishes the game. This is Olsen & Johnson’s twisted idea of causality: every weird joke deserves a weirder one on top of it.

OK, this one’s tricky: after yelling “Cut!” and dragging them out of hell, the director of Hellzapoppin’ (Richard Lane) tries to explain to Chic and Ole the real plot of their movie. He shows them a picture of the principal characters, which turns into its own film; Chic and Ole watch it and make snarky comments – it’s MST3K avant le lettre. Then, strangest of all, one of the characters in the picture-turned-film-within-a-film turns to them and talks back. Yeah.

This is… OK, so Betty (Martha Raye) was handed a block of ice left over from a sight gag, and Prince Pepi (Mischa Auer) was told that the girl “with all the ice” (as in diamonds) was a wealthy heiress. So naturally tries to seduce Betty, who’s very very willing. They retreat to a pool shed, where they have a makeout session that unfolds in fast motion and silhouette. The block of ice melts from the heat of their passion. That all makes sense, right?

So, the movie is being projected in the theater by Louie (Shemp Howard), who’s being romanced by his girlfriend, a horny usher (Jody Gilbert). He gets distracted by her, becomes careless with the projection, and all of a sudden the film is jumping around vertically. Chic bangs his head on the top of the frame, while Ole and Jeff (Robert Paige) struggle to pull the film back into alignment. While being split in half. That’s about as meta as it gets.

Detective/narrator/trickster god Quimby (Hugh Herbert) made Chic and Ole invisible (after they killed him and brought him back to life), but when the movie degenerates into a giant conga party, they decide they want to be visible again. Eventually, Quimby remembers the correct spell, and brings them back… but now they’re riding pigs, and are surrounded by birds and rabbits! Why? Well, to quote Chic, “It’s Hellzapoppin’!”

Yeah, these are the kinds of jokes that fly in Hellzapoppin’. No matter how hard you try, you can’t keep up with this movie; you’re more likely to be driven mad. It’s anti-plot, anti-logic, anti-sense. It’s also more fun than a barrel of invisible monkeys. Incidentally, I recently noticed that the film got quite a thorough write-up back in 2008 at Ferdy on Films, so you should go check out that piece too. The more love this movie gets, the better. (It hasn’t even received an official Region 1 DVD release – can you believe it?) To quote the talking dog that appears toward the end of Hellzapoppin’, “Can you imagine that, a talking bear!”

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Art in the Shadows

This is my favorite image from the great Val Lewton-produced horror film The Seventh Victim (1943). It comes about twenty minutes in, as the young orphan Mary (Kim Hunter) searches for her sister Jacqueline, who’s mixed up with a satanist cabal. With the aid of the kindly Irving August, she’s been investigating the perfume factory that her sister used to own. Then, to the accompaniment of the ticking clock and swelling orchestra, August marches mechanically down the hall and collapses. A series of reaction shots show Mary’s utter terror just before she flees the scene, but tucked between them is this enigmatic image.

The Seventh Victim was directed by Mark Robson and photographed by Nicholas Musuraca, whose other credits include Cat People and Out of the Past. In the use of lighting and shadows, Musuraca’s work here reveals a visual sensibility that’s reminiscent of the then-embryonic film noir style; the equally German Expressionism-influenced Universal horror cycle; and even the avant-garde photography of Man Ray. Compare this shot, say, to Minotaur or Veiled Erotic: all use light/shadow interplay alongside heavily manipulated composition in order to heighten visual (and in Ray’s case, sexual) ambiguity.

This shot exemplifies the Lewton unit’s acclaimed use of “suggestion” in horror. Instead of using the shot in a straightforward, expositional manner (i.e., to tell the audience that August is dead), the Lewton/Robson/Musuraca team has it intensify the atmosphere. The image consists of three zigzags (the shadow over Mary’s feet, the strip of light, and August’s sleeve), an amount of visual information that’s impossible to fully process in the 3-4 seconds that the shot’s on the screen. It reproduces, in the viewer’s mind, Mary’s current disorientation and fear, further obfuscating an already perplexing situation. And that’s scary.

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RIP Satoshi Kon, anime dream master

Last night I learned, tragically, that anime director Satoshi Kon has died of cancer at age 47. Kon was the creative force behind some of my favorite (non-Ghibli) feature-length anime films of recent years, specifically Millennium Actress (2001), Tokyo Godfathers (2003, pictured above), and Paprika, a dream-hopping adventure I saw at MSPIFF when it premiered in 2006. He also directed the thriller Perfect Blue and the complex 13-episode series Paranoia Agent, both of which I have yet to see in their entirety. Suffice it to say that Kon’s life was cut short near the peak of his creative output, and there’s no telling how catastrophic a loss this is to the world of film.

I’ve been meaning to write about Kon for a while; I’m just sad that these have to be the circumstances in which I do it. I wrote a short piece on Millennium Actress a couple years ago; it’s none too insightful or well-written, but it’s a useful jumping-off point, so I’ll reprint it here:

One film whose existence was only made known to me recently is Millennium Actress (2001). From Satoshi Kon, director of great anime like the series Paranoia Agent and the film Paprika, it’s infused with his unique brand of surrealism, but put toward a more coherent purpose: deconstructing the life of a reclusive Japanese actress, as seen through the eyes of an admiring documentary filmmaker. The narrative intermingles her memories of 20th century Japan with images of her film career (including pastiches of Throne of Blood and Godzilla), and concerns her relationship with a political prisoner, who gives her the key “to the most important thing.” As it traces the actress’s struggle to find her lost love, it also examines the connection between real life and the dream lives portrayed in film, leading to a bittersweet finale. Between its multifarious animation styles and compelling subject matter, I find Millennium Actress just as beautiful as the much-praised works of Miyazaki.

This snippet hints at some of Kon’s inimitable strengths: he could blend an acute cultural awareness and a slightly wacky sense of humor with faith in the infinite (and phantasmagoric) capacities of animation. I’ve only seen Paranoia Agent‘s first episode, but even that lone half-hour displays Kon’s extensive talent for unpacking dense narratives with both impressive (sometimes disturbing) visuals and extreme, sometimes painful psychological detail. Although renowned for his forays into dream imagery (most explicitly Paprika), Kon always maintained an intense focus on those dreams’ emotional underpinnings and his characters’ rich internal lives. At the end of a summer so dominated by Inception, it’s refreshing to look at a dream-weaving director whose characters had personalities and a pulse.

Tokyo Godfathers, which I watched a few weeks ago, was a delightful surprise and demonstrated Kon’s sheer versatility. Although much of his work consists of probing, stylized peeks into the psyches of fragile individuals, Godfathers proved that he was equally adept at marrying urban drama with broad comedy. In American films, homelessness is too often the substance of saccharine, Oscar-baity melodramas; Kon, however, sympathetically observes his poverty-ridden (but still dignified) characters – a grizzled, middle-aged man, a flamboyant trans woman, and a teenage runaway – as they form a strange but functional family unit, interacting naturalistically and coping with hardships that range from hunger to tuberculosis to their dirty, hidden pasts.

Kon deftly balances the gravity of their collective situation with the lightness of their madcap chases and slapstick collisions (as when an assassin accidentally prevents one of them from making a potentially fatal mistake). And although the film indulges in a number of anime clichés, they never threaten to constrain it, since it’s always buoyed by its fundamental soulfulness and self-awareness. Tokyo Godfathers is volatile in mood and style, but Kon handles these rapid transitions masterfully. It’s a film that’s integrates cartoonish extravagances with Tokyo’s physical realities, and a must-see for any fan of Kon’s other films.

However, I think Millennium Actress is Kon’s best work, and possibly one of the best animated films from any nation. It’s so alive with the power and history of cinema; how could I not love it? (For Ozu lovers, its title character is also loosely based on the enigmatic Setsuko Hara.) I’m sure Kon’s critical legacy will be hotly debated over the coming years – and as we debate it, we’ll be mourning the future films he could have made. He did leave an unfinished film, The Dream Machines, at his death; perhaps it’ll be visible someday. In the meantime, here are a couple of helpful Kon-centric links: 1) an extensive interview with Kon from around the time Paprika was released and 2) Film Studies For Free‘s round-up of resources and academic papers on Kon. Or else you can hit YouTube and start watching Paranoia Agent.

Addendum: While glancing through this retrospective on Kon’s career, I saw a description of Tokyo Godfathers as “saccharine melodrama.” Clearly I disagree (I think Godfathers is pretty underrated); still, the piece by Grady Hendrix of the New York Sun has a lot of great insights and is very worth reading.

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Cartoons: They’re Not Just for Children EVER

I don’t know where people got the assumption that animation is a children’s domain. Maybe through further research I could ferret it out. Is it because animation’s ability to violate physical rules appeals especially to children, who may not yet entirely understand them? Or is it because animated characters tend to be especially broad and caricaturish, and this is supposedly geared toward a child’s lack of sophistication? Is it because animation has historically been realized best – for many artistic and industrial reasons – in 5-10 minute shorts, as opposed to the more critically respectable feature length of live-action films?

I don’t yet know, but the assumption couldn’t be more wrong-headed. It’s been mostly within my lifetime, since the emergence of “adult animation” as a distinct category, that magazines have trumpeted (and continue to trumpet), “Cartoons [or, often, comics]: they’re not just for children anymore!” Well, duh. But what’s particularly sad about this sudden realization is the fact that animation was never just for children. From the very first (lost) feature-length animated films of Argentina’s Quirino Cristiani, which were apparently full of complex political commentary, right down through beloved classics like “Red Hot Riding Hood” and “What’s Opera, Doc?”, animators have consistently operated at a level of sophistication (and perversion) equal to or even above that of conventional, live-action filmmaking.

Which brings me to Max Fleischer’s 1931 cartoon “Bimbo’s Initiation,” which I was recently introduced to by my friend Jacob. It’s 6 1/2 minutes of mayhem, persecution, and Freudian nightmares. Its visual sensibilities lie somewhere between M.C. Escher and Alice in Wonderland, and its characters’ primary motivations are sheer sadism and uninhibited lust. It dispenses with all but the minimal necessary narrative: Bimbo is dropped through an open manhole out of his mundane surface world and into a violent underground funhouse, where he’s systematically pursued and tortured for the remainder of the cartoon. The only real plot progression occurs as Bimbo’s trials become increasingly dangerous and nonsensical, and when the Mystic Order that’s attempting to initiate him reveals themselves as dozens of Betty Boop prototypes.

I can understand how an anti-realistic story like this, brimming as it is with flagrant absurdism, could be potentially viewed as childish. It’s practically preverbal, as most of the dialogue is a simple chant – “Wanna be a member? Wanna be a member?” – followed by Bimbo’s “No!” The cartoon physics at play, especially in the Rube Goldbergian torture devices, follow their own ridiculous logic, and the anthropomorphic characters include a sword, fire, a skeleton, and a shadow. These aspects of the cartoon’s universe suggest either a child, or else an altered state of consciousness, whether dreamed or drug-induced. These aren’t just infantile fantasies; they’re a baring of the male psyche, reducing Bimbo to his lowest state of vulnerability and victimization. This cartoon has some pretty intense psychoanalytic subtext for it to just be “kids’ stuff.”

And then there’s the afore-mentioned sadism and lust. This isn’t just typical cartoon slapstick as Bimbo tries to reach some concrete goal; he is literally running for his life from a secret society obsessed with killing him, or at least paddling his ass until it burns. (This cartoon really has an unhealthy ass fixation.) And it’s only after Betty’s rubber-bodied dance that Bimbo’s interest in becoming a member is quite visibly aroused. The happy ending seems to imply a forthcoming orgy – is this the transition from nightmare into wet dream? Whatever it is, it’s definitely beyond the sexual reckoning of your typical child. This cartoon takes haunted house clichés and stretches them out through repetition into rituals of torture; it’s as if this underworld were itself conflicted, infinitely punishing and rewarding Bimbo.

I don’t pretend to understand “Bimbo’s Initiation,” but I do enjoy it immensely. Wikipedia claims that comics artist Jim Woodring was heavily inspired by this cartoon, and if you’ve read anything by Woodring (like, say, Frank), the influence is clear both in architecture and in tone. A child could easily find this funny, sure, because it is funny. But there’s so much going on below the surface, and even on the surface, that’s decidedly adult; it strikes you on numerous levels simultaneously. This is a sick cartoon. That’s not a judgment, but more of a declaration: this cartoon has diagnosable psychosexual maladies. It’s sick. This isn’t the only place I could have started when talking about how cartoons, even back in 1931, were never just for kids, but it’s an entertaining place. Disney may get the press and all the money, but Max Fleischer had one hell of a perverse creative vision.

asshttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4vkRsylQ0lg&NR=1

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