That Old Timey Magic

A wonderful view.

A wonderful view.

To an entertainer, an empty theater might be the saddest of all things. It is a shame more films are not as beautiful as Sylvain Chomet’s most recent masterwork, The Illusionist (2010). This is a film that is doing more things than most people will ever realize. At once it is a fable for the aging arts and it is also a fitting farewell from a film legend…from beyond the grave. Zombie movie? Like Chomet’s extraordinarily imaginative The Triplets of Belleville (2003), The Illusionist is an affectionate exploration into the world of vagabond vaudevillians and destitute dotards, but its tone is decidedly more somber and poetic.

A theater.

The theater awakens.

Once again, as with Triplets and his short The Old Lady and the Pigeons (1998), The Illusionist showcases Chomet’s brilliant attention to detail, his knack for gorgeously fascinating character design, exquisite control of movement and weight, and uncanny ability to tell a great story without the aid of spoken language. Chomet’s work tends to hearken back to the glory days of pantomime on vaudeville and in early cinema. Perhaps that is what makes The Illusionist so perfect a film for this visionary director to undertake. The story was composed by fellow French auteur, Jacques Tati (Playtime), a man whose sensibilities lie heavily on the side of classic silent comedy.

Tati’s comedies are quiet, satirical studies in shifting environments. To stand back and view Tati’s whole canon one can begin to see two trends: first that Tati’s character of Mr. Hulot seems to be fading into the background while the films themselves become more and more purposely plotless, and secondly that the countryside of Mr. Hulot’s adventures is steadily disappearing and being engulfed by dispassionate concrete modernity. Tati seemed to be the French Charlie Chaplin of the fifties and sixties, doggedly telling taciturn tales of a lost shadow in a labyrinth of encroaching skyscrapers and smoke. If his sensibilities seemed backwards and anachronistic then, just imagine if he were making movies today. Well, I am happy to report that Jacques Tati is alive and well and inhabiting the latest and most bittersweet effort by Sylvain Chomet.

The magician.

The magician.

In The Illusionist an aging magician discovers his audience is diminishing so he travels far, scouring the land for the next venue for his magic act and skittish rabbit. He chances upon an affable drunk in England who takes him to Scotland where he performs at a bar and picks up a stowaway upon his departure. A young girl, dazzled by the strange foreign visitor’s tricks, follows him believing that all of the nice things he has given her were freely snatched out of thin air. She doesn’t seem to understand the money the good magician is throwing away to buy his friend the things she desires, but he never tells her and she always wants more material things that cost money. This habit has the magician taking more and more lowly jobs just to provide for himself and the girl as they live in a tumbledown hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland.  The hotel is also occupied by several other has-beens from better days. There is an alcoholic ventriloquist and a team of out-of-work acrobatic brothers and a suicidal clown living just down the hall. It seems as though no one has use for these creaking relics of the theater. Where is a poor magician to display his craft in this new world? Eventually the girl grows older and begins to fancy a young gentleman and the magician (as well as the other hotel denizens) become older, poorer and more pathetic. The final act is one of the most somber and beautiful finales I have seen and I would not have it any other way.

Far from France.

Far from Paris.

Perhaps it is easier to tell what The Illusionist is rather than what it is about. Some have called it a postcard to the rainy hillsides and winding, cobbled streets of Edinburgh. It may be that, but it is so much more. It is also a heartfelt tribute, as well as a funeral dirge, to the dying arts and artists of this world. Fitting it should be based on a script written by a dead spokesperson for just that, and even more fitting it should be rendered in old-fashioned two-dimensional cel-animation. The film is soft, quiet, pensive, tranquil, thoughtful, and tragic and it retains all of these heavy watermarks while staying humorously buoyant and charming. Despite some of the more melancholy elements of the plot, I could not help but be swept along with the sweet murmurs of mirth that permeated the delicate atmosphere of that darkened theater. I wore a smile the whole time because I was impressed with the gorgeous animation and because I was laughing at the protagonist’s maudlin misfortunes and unflappably gallant manners and I smiled because I was sad.

The Illusionist may be more literally the story of a magician waving good-bye to a declining limelight, but I feel as though I am watching the flesh and blood Jacques Tati blow a farewell kiss to us all, and even though he may not be physically present I would not hesitate to call it the perfect swansong for Tati.

Mass transit.

Mass transit.

Perhaps Tati is present in the film. In addition to a brief scene featuring Mon Oncle playing in an old theater, Chomet has captured Tati/Hulot’s postures, gait, and mannerisms perfectly. The magician carries an umbrella and even wears the same striped socks, bow-tie, and raincoat and, in one scene, even has the hat of Mr. Hulot. The magician has the same awkward second-guess step and toe-tilting rigidity and balance that Mr. Hulot possessed. His hands always find their way to his hips or clasped innocently behind him. The magician is a lovingly molded caricature. Where the characters in Triplets and Old Lady were hilariously grotesque exaggerations, the characters of The Illusionist seem to be sculpted with more compassion. Much like Wall-e, the magician’s relative silence and absence of a wide range of facial expression do not hinder the audience from understanding exactly what is transpiring in that little animated brain. His quiet demeanor only give us more understanding of his plight and give him more sympathy.

A The Illusionist is another beautifully drawn and outstanding comedic yarn about displacement and desperation from the brilliant mind of Sylvain Chomet. The film is very soulful and personal and very well exectued. I chuckled much and felt very wistful throughout The Illusionist. This is a movie for fans of Sylvain Chomet and Jacques Tati and Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and Scotland and vaudeville and antiques and rain and cel animation and magic. It’s utterly sublime.

Goodbye, old friend.

Goodbye, old friend.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan. 17, 2011.

Advertisements

The Inconsequentials

Somewhere there’s in immense list of all the movies you should see before you die. They are powerful, iconic, historic, influential, quotable. We call these movies “The Essentials.” Most of them you’ve seen or at least heard of; anything from Star Wars to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. How many people know The Pink Panther (1963) with Peter Sellers? Now, how many people know Topkapi (1964) with Peter Ustinov? In an effort to preserve all of the iconic, unmitigated masterpieces from film history (which is a very good thing), we can sometimes forget the smaller, old films that might not exactly be considered “essential” viewing.

Personal feelings: I think Topkapi is a far superior heist comedy to The Pink Panther.

I use the term “inconsequentials” as a sort of joke, but I think it’s a shame more people are not clamoring for copies of West of Zanzibar (1928), Shanghai Express (1932), and White Zombie (1932). These are three movies that I personally love and I will tell you what makes them special and why nobody cares today. Join me as we travel from the deepest African jungle to dangerous Chinese railways and then into Haitian voodoo country on our tour of some of the “inconsequentials.”


Lon Chaney, Sr. is a gateway drug into the world of silent cinema. Chaney, Chaplin, Fairbanks, Sr., the whole lot. They pull you in. West of Zanzibar is one of those strange silent jungle melodramas, and if you have ever heard of this one it was because you are a die-hard Lon Chaney fan. It also has the added cult appeal of being directed by the great Tod Browning (Dracula, Freaks, The Unholy Three). Chaney is most famous for his roles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). His uncanny ability to utilize makeup and physically painful-looking bodily distortions are what made him a legend of the silver screen. This film is a little different. Chaney wears no disguises. No clown makeup, no monster deformity, no Fu Manchu getup, no drag. Nothing. Chaney plays a stage magician of great prominence named Phroso. He is betrayed when his wife, Anna, cheats on him with his arch rival, Mr. Crane (played by Lionel Barrymore of Key Largo and It’s a Wonderful Life). When Crane announces that he is taking Anna away with him to Africa, Phroso attempts to stop him, but is thrown off the balcony and becomes paralyzed from the waist down. Later Phroso, now a paraplegic, discovers that Anna has died and so he vows revenge. Phroso moves to Africa to get Crane. Eighteen years have passed and Phroso is now the grimy “Dead Legs,” a strange witch doctor type guy to a primitive jungle tribe. He uses his magic tricks to frighten the natives of a nearby tribe…who happen to be under the watch of who else but Crane. “Dead Legs” kidnaps Crane’s daughter and tortures her to make Crane feel the pain he felt. *SPOILER ALERT* Well into the plot, “Dead Legs” learns that the girl he captured is actually his own daughter and that Crane has been taking care of her all these years, but it is too late to fix the damage he has done. He has killed Crane and his real daughter sees him as an evil murderer. To reveal his true identity at this point would destroy the girl, so he sacrifices himself to the natives to buy her time to escape into the night with her main squeeze.

The movie is dark, demented, and perfect for fans of Lon Chaney. He’s great at playing these deranged patriarchs, vengeful creeps, sympathetic deformed characters, and the subject of impossible tragedy and in West of Zanzibar he gets to play them all at once. The story is very pulpy and silly, but it’s a lot of fun and it has a wonderful exotic feel. The reason West of Zanzibar gets overlooked is because of the more popular films like The Phantom of the Opera and Dracula. The average person gets a sense of who Chaney and Browning are and moves on, never discovering their smaller films. Like I said, you’d have to be a real Lon Chaney geek or silent film nerd to seek this one out, but for my money it is well worth it even if you’re not.


Shanghai Express is an exorbitantly pulpy flick about women of sin, how much faith it takes to love someone, and a train on an exotic track with a rendezvous with the Chinese civil war. Marlene Dietrich (Witness for the Prosecution, Destry Rides Again) stars as Shanghai Lily, the most famous and successful prostitute in the orient (don’t worry, she’s not in yellow-face). When she boards the Shanghai Express with her friend and fellow woman-of-ill-repute, Hui Fei (played by the always fascinating Anna May Wong), everyone is perturbed by their presence. Several colorful and leisured characters are on board the train including a very outspoken missionary, an officer, a fickle woman, an opium dealer, an exceedingly gregarious gambler (Eugene Pallette, who always seems to be playing priests, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Mark of Zorro), the shady half-Chinese Henry Chang (Charlie Chan himself, Warner Oland), and Lily’s old flame, the stoic British Captain Harvey (Clive Brook). Lily still has feelings for Captain Harvey, but Harvey is displeased with the life she now leads (although we sense he still fancies her greatly despite their 5 year separation). Can these two lost souls rekindle their dwindling romance? Moreover, will everyone get out alive after the train is stopped and they are taken hostage by Henry Chang who turns out to be a powerful warlord and rebel in the civil war? What makes this film work is the fun cast of characters, the steamy locations, the feelings of entrapment, the themes of faith and love…and revenge. I was only nominally with this film until the train got stopped. Then I was fully invested. The stakes are raised and the plot thickens. Murder, torture, sex, betrayal, the works. It’s amazing how much they got away with in those pre-code days.

Shanghai Express is pulpy fun. Most of the characters are fairly broad or rigid. I honestly don’t know how Captain Harvey and Shanghai Lily ever got together to begin with. The film also throws in random spiritual elements that don’t exactly seem to mesh, but it’s a good trip on a mysterious train that collides with danger and intrigue. Shanghai Express is filmed well and Eugene Pallette really livens things up and Anna May Wong delivers another dark and subtle performance that steals every scene she’s in. I love this movie for its simple but interesting story and rich atmosphere. The reason why this movie gets overlooked? Because Casablanca was a better movie. Plain and simple. Brooks can’t compete with Bogart, but Shanghai Express is still a great little movie on its own and should be celebrated more these days.


The last two films I talked about had a few things in common. They were pulpy, exotic, and atmospheric “inconsequentials” and my last pick is no exception. White Zombie might be a little more well-known for two very important reasons: a.) it stars Bela Lugosi (Dracula) and b.) it’s the first zombie movie. Many people regard George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) as the first zombie movie, but White Zombie has it beat by a good 36 years. Romero’s film changed the rules for zombie flicks and added social commentary, but White Zombie is all just for fun. Bela Lugosi plays Murder Legendre, an insidious voodoo master and owner of a Haitian sugar plantation. As you might have guessed, his Haitian slaves working the spooky sugar cane mill are actually zombies! Here’s the plot in a nutshell: Charles (a plantation owner) loves Madeleine, but Madeleine is in love with and getting married to Neil, so Charles goes to Murder for help. Simple. But!…the only way for Murder to make Madeleine love Charles is to make her into a zombie. So that’s exactly what they do, but Neil discovers his dead fiancee’s tomb to be empty and recruits the knowledgeable missionary, Bruner, and meanwhile Charles is regretting his decision for a zombie romance and Murder is actually slowly turning Charles into a zombie too! It all builds up to an exciting climax in Murder’s cliff-side castle. Zombies attack and spells are broken and there’s voodoo and people die and stuff and bad guy’s name is Murder! It’s fun.

Despite the relative cheapness of the production, White Zombie boasts some fantastic atmosphere and one of Bela Lugosi’s best performances. The scenes in the zombie sugar mill are spooky and deliciously atmospheric. The castle is great and the shots of the zombies assembling in the hillside cemetery are fun and a lurking Lugosi practicing voodoo in the shadows is  just great. It’s a slight movie (some might call it “inconsequential”), but I really love it. The reason you don’t see this one on a lot of lists is because of legendary movies like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, and others that overshadow it. White Zombie has a fairly insignificant villain as far as supernatural antagonists go and it doesn’t seem to have been made with as much care…or money. All that being said, it’s a great bit of cheap horror and much better than The Creature From the Black Lagoon. It also makes for a delightfully inconsequential double-feature with The Vampire Bat (1933) starring Fay Wray (Doctor X, King Kong), Lionel Atwill (Doctor X, Captain Blood), Melvyn Douglas (The Tenant, Being There), and the always wide-eyed Dwight Frye (Frankenstein, Dracula, Bride of Frankenstein). (Incidentally the guy who directed the extremely “inconsequential” Doctor X just so happens to be Michael Curtiz, the guy who directed Casablanca. It all comes full circle).

 

One more film I must mention as I recently revisited it after several years and I am pleased to say it still holds up is Bluebeard (1944). Fans of John Carradine are probably quite familiar with it. Carradine plays Bluebeard, a puppeteer/painter/serial-strangler in 19th century Paris. It’s a delightfully low-budget yarn of the macabre.

As a lover of old movies it takes more than just the undeniable classics to appease me. Sometimes I like the smaller films just as much as the great ones. Don’t let the greats cast too long a shadow that they blot out the smaller film achievements. Use them as a reference point to find more movies from those eras. West of Zanzibar, Shanghai Express, and White Zombie may not be on anybody’s “essentials” list, but I’d say make room for these “inconsequentials.” You might be surprised by what you find.

picture references:

mubi.com

doctormacro.com

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Feb. 9, 2011.

Off the Cobbled Path

Some folks might remember an odd, little animated film that was swept under the carpet back in the 1990s. It was labeled a knockoff of Disney’s Aladdin (1992), but in fact, quite the opposite was true. I am of course referring to Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler (1993). Richard Williams was and is widely considered one of the greatest animators and with such works as The Little Island (1958) and A Christmas Carol (1971) as well as several TV shows and commercials under his belt in addition to directing the animated sequences for Robert Zemeckis’s classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), who could argue?

The version of this film that was released by in 1993 is not what the film was meant to be at all (I believe they called Arabian Knight when it went to theaters). Director/writer/producer/animator Richard Williams had been working on this passion project for over twenty-six years, but when it was at long last nearing completion another studio had the rights to it and made several alterations to make it “more accessible.” They deleted several sequences and put their own animators to work to fill in the incomplete portions and if you have an eye for animation it won’t be hard figuring out who animated what in the theatrical cut. They also threw in a few forgettable songs to make it a musical. If this didn’t drastically alter the tone already, to make matters worse the studio rejected Williams’ original idea of having the two title characters be mute and gave them voices (the Thief being voiced by comedian Jonathan Winters). When it came out in 1993 many people did not appreciate the sloppy mix of highly stylized Williams art combined unevenly with the slapdash bits and songs. Furthermore, many people compared it unfairly to Aladdin which came out the year before because they had many things in common. The truth is that Disney, who had owned the rights to the unfinished film for a time, swiped many of The Thief and the Cobbler‘s ideas, characters, and glimmers of the character designs and incorporated them into Aladdin. Both films are set in the Middle East and feature magic, a romance between a lowly peasant and a beautiful Princess, an evil Grand Vizier with a bird sidekick, and a plot to get the throne from the oblivious but kind-hearted short, bearded Sultan. Now I like Aladdin just as much as the next fellow (Robin Williams is hilarious in it and the whole film a lot of fun), but let us give credit where it is due.

For years the only piece to the puzzle that could be seen by the public was the Miramax cut with the songs. The good news is that we live in an age of computers and The Thief and the Cobbler: Re-Cobbled cut can be found on the internet. The re-cobbled version restores what it can of what was to be Richard Williams’ magnum opus. It cobbles together all of the footage that Williams completed and institutes pencil tests and storyboards for the missing pieces. It also removes the songs and unwanted voiceovers and attempts to recover Williams’ lost vision. The end result may not be your typical animated film, but it is not hard to see the genius at work behind it. Indeed the most frustrating element of the whole thing is that you can see how The Thief and the Cobbler could have been easily one of the greatest animated films of all time. It remains one of the singularly most impressive personal works from an animator I have ever seen. Incorporating elements from classic Arabian art, silent cinema, M. C. Escher, and western cartoons (to name but a few), Williams fashioned a world that could only exist in the realm of cel-animation.

The story takes place in the mythical Golden City. It follows your basic plot of malevolent malfeasance and diabolical deception. The evil Grand Vizier, Zigzag (voiced by the great Vincent Price) desires to marry Princess Yum Yum and has made an illicit alliance with the Wicked One-Eyes (an army of, what else but green, grotesque one-eyed monster-like people). Zigzag (who speaks entirely in rhymes and recites them all as only Vincent Price could) intends to snatch up the throne of the drowsy King Nod, but things go awry when a mute shoe Cobbler named Tack bumps into a scruffy Thief and he enters the realm of royals due to a mislaid tack which finds its way into Zigzag’s shoe. Sentenced to death, Tack is saved by the beautiful Princess Yum Yum who breaks one of her shoes on purpose and insists he fix it. Unbeknownst to the palace inhabitants, a dreadful prophecy is about to come true. The Golden City is only safe as long as the three golden balls are secure atop the highest minaret, and the clownish Thief (with a persistent halo of flies about his head) has snuck into the palace with Tack. A constant stubborn opportunist and filcher of many a fine prize throughout the film, the Thief cannot resist and so undertakes the nearly impossible task of thieving the three golden balls. He succeeds at last, but Zigzag’s minions snatch them and Zigzag uses them to bribe the One-eyes to let him take control after they destroy the Golden City.

Tack, Princess Yum Yum, and her nanny, fearing the impending doom of the city at the hands of the vicious One-eyes, go on a quest to get help from the Mad and Holy Old Witch. The Thief also tags along. Along the way they pick up a ragtag militia of slovenly brigands who help them on their journey. When they at long last find the Witch she answers them with a riddle (as witches are oft times wont to do). “It’s what you do with what you got,” she says to Tack. When they return to the Golden City they discover that the One-eyes’ war machine and army are ominously advancing. Tack shoots a single tack at the encroaching mass and what happens next can only be described as one of the most epically impressive Rube Goldbergian orgies of chaotic mayhem and comedy ever conceived. As the impossible war machine unravels from within, amidst the chaos the Thief, spotting the three golden balls within it, casually meanders through the disaster narrowly missing arrows, gears, canons, explosions, elephants, and more in a desperate effort to appease his greed. Somehow the single-minded Thief escapes the carnage unscathed. I shouldn’t have to tell you that it all ends well for Tack and the Princess and that the forces of evil get their just desserts.

The Thief and the Cobbler: Re-Cobbled is a treasure to behold. It is an incredible achievement with nonstop kinetic power and seemingly effortless Looney Tunes-esque comic panache. The scene where the Cobbler pursues the Thief through the palace is fantastic and the scenes where the Thief steals the balls and when we wanders through the collapsing war machine are hilarious. It is hard for me to watch this movie without erupting in laughter or my jaw hanging agape. The animation is vibrant, stylized, and colorful. I’m always impressed by Richard Williams’ ability to capture the essence of weight—easily one of the most difficult things to do in animation. The movie is a constant delight and dazzlement and with the Re-Cobbled cut I think people may finally see the crowning achievement this film was supposed to be. I find no difficulty in saying that Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler, even unfinished, is a masterpiece.

And I have included it for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy.

(This particular “re-cobbled” cut does feature a few shots from the Fred Calvert version, although his animation does not measure up to Williams’ it does provide greater context for much of the scene progression).

picture references:

imageshack.us

tankadillo.com

movierapture.com

photobucket.com

thephoenix.com

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 25, 2010.

More Movies You Didn’t See: Zaniness Abounds

1e

I am a simple person who is really tickled when things surprise and take me off guard. Like a baby being shown a set of jangling keys.

The first movie has become something of a cult classic. It was directed by a prominent cult filmmaker (the guy behind Audition, Ichi the Killer, and Gozu) and it blends genres in a fun, unforgettable way. It’s Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001). I first saw it several years ago with my good friend Mat, as part of a crazed double-feature with Jan Svankmajer’s Alice. It was a good time had by most.

1c

Katakuris is actually a liberty-taking remake of a Korean film called The Quiet Family directed by Kim Ji-woon. The story is quaint enough. An adorably down-and-out Japanese family opens up a bed and breakfast in the country but nobody shows up…but when guests do start arriving and then dying unexpectedly the Katakuris decide to bury the bodies on the property to avoid bad publicity. Did I mention it’s also a musical?

There are many other subplots among the characters. Katakuris is narrated by the youngest Katakuri as a sort of innocent reflection on what makes a family. Her mother is always looking for love and winds up getting conned by the sleazy Richard Sagawa. Her uncle is trying to find direction in his life and overcome the stigma of being a thief in the past. The grandparents are the ones who are trying their darndest to keep the bed and breakfast alive and great grandfather has an ongoing rivalry with birds that fly overhead.

1a

Miike weaves in some weird jokes throughout: a fly burrows into a newscaster’s nostril; the entire cast is arbitrarily transformed into stop-motion clay figures at random. You know. Stuff like that. The film is purposely campy and very silly at times, yet despite all of its melodramatic whimsy and spoofery there is a real heart beating down in there. The songs are actually really good too. Every song evokes a different style, be it showtune, rock, sing-along, karaoke number, etc. It’s a wild, weird, funny, and oddly heartwarming film about the importance of family and I strongly urge you to see it for yourself.

1d

Next up is a film that springs from the early career of Werner Herzog. Mr. Herzog has proven he is a master storyteller and documentarian (often blurring the lines between fictional narrative and traditional documentary) with such memorable films as  Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), Fitzcarraldo (1985), Grizzly Man (2005), The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans (2009), and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) to name a few. Whether he’s looking for desert mirages (Fata Morgana), remaking F. W. Murnau’s immortal classic Nosferatu with Klaus Kinski or he’s directing a literally hypnotized cast (Heart of Glass) Herzog is always full of invention and surprises. His second feature film, Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) may not be for everybody.

1b

It’s an all little-person cast, black-and-white, German-language movie that appears to take place in some Spanish desert. It’s got everything. Satire. Dwarfs. Car stunts. Maniacal laughter. Persecution of the blind. Monkey crucifixion. The dwarf who plays the president is even the dwarf who plays the president in Robert Downey, Sr.’s Putney Swope.

The story is fairly simple enough. An all dwarf mental institution is taken over by the patients (think Svankmajer’s Lunacy). They lock up the president and run amok. Like many ill-bred revolutionaries they lack foresight and don’t really know what to do with themselves once their dimly conceived role reversal is achieved. The revolution quickly goes awry and devolves into chaos. Much symbolism and much humor and much, much craziness in this early film from a cock-eyed filmmaking beast. A treat for a very special few and would make a great triple-feature with The Terror of Tiny-Town and Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. Or For Y’ur Height Only!

1c

A Town Called Panic (2009) is Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s feature-length adventure based on their Belgian stop-motion TV series of the same name. It is a madcap romp through a whimsical world where anything can happen…as long as it is absurd or funny.

1c

Three lovable roommates, the aptly named Cowboy, Indian, and Horse, go on an adventure to correct a construction error. Horse, a pragmatist, signs up for music lessons to get closer to the music teacher (who is also a horse), but Cowboy and Indian, in an attempt to order 50 bricks to build Horse a barbecue pit for his birthday, accidentally purchase 50,000,000 bricks and thus the bent harmony of Horse’s world is thrust into a twistedly inane series of events.

Evil scientists lob snowballs from the north pole in a giant robot penguin, the trio gets lost in the center of the earth, and they meet an underwater parallel universe inhabited by amphibious pranksters. It’s nonstop silly excitement. Perhaps what makes A Town Called Panic such an unusual experience derives from the crudity of the cheesy plastic toy animations. The film kinda feels like your watching a child’s school project diorama do crack and come to life. I also enjoy the little touches, like the farm animals that behave like farm animals but also go to school and can drive (like children playing with toys). It’s light, breezy, fun, and funny and sure to entertain the whole family.

1f

What’s one more cult classic? Oingo Boingo (then called The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo) founder, Richard Elfman, made the off-color assault, The Forbidden Zone (1980) to create something that would feel like one of their concert shows. The result was a bawdy, black-and-white (finally colorized in 2008), cracked musical-comedy adventure steeped in the surreal. The film is loaded with frog-headed men, human chandeliers, torture, butt jokes, songs, and plenty of wild, wacky sound effects and characters.

_78428474_60

Hervé Villechaize (Fantasy Island) stars as the super horny King Fausto of the Sixth Dimension (a strange amalgam of Max Fleischer cartoons, minstrel shows, and sexual fetishism) with Susan Tyrell as the jealous Queen Doris. The Hercules family purchases a humble shack in Venice, California from a narcotics dealer—unbeknownst to them there is a portal to the Sixth Dimension in the basement.

When starry-eyed Frenchy Hercules (Marie-Pascale Elfman) winds up passing through the intestinal portal of the Sixth Dimension, the amorous King of this highly unusual dominion takes a shine to her and so he keeps her for himself. My favorite characters, Flash (a curiously old man for Frenchy’s brother) and Grampa Hercules, descend into the bowels (quite literally) of the Sixth Dimension to rescue her. Things get weirder and weirder. The Kipper Kids perform a raspberry grunting duet, a Chicken Boy (Matthew Bright) loses his head, Danny Elfman plays a Cab Calloway-covering Satan, and soon everyone is bouncing around the cartoon walls of King Fausto’s kingdom.

1b

As with Katakuris, this movie has a lot of great songs (a must-see for Oingo Boingo fans), and it also has a special place in my heart because it was one of the first “weird movies” I ever saw. It’s a special kind of cracked gratuitous raucousness and it definitely won’t be for everyone, but it is a solid cult classic and (for the right mindset) it can be a whole lot of fun. (The main theme was also lifted for the Dilbert TV series intro music). This movie opened my eyes and changed my life. There was life, then there was life after I had seen The Forbidden Zone.

So there you have it. Two musicals, an animated kid’s show, and a social satire…but oh, so much more. Movies are supposed to be fun and sometimes when movies seem like they almost don’t even care about the audience they appear to have the most fun.

1d

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Nov. 23, 2010.

Star Whores and Other Space Oddities

1I love Star Wars (circa. 1977-1983). For all the grief we give George Lucas for the “Special Edition,” the prequels, TV spinoffs, etc, one cannot downplay how much influence the Star Wars films have had on culture and the art of filmmaking. Not only has Star Wars influenced subsequent science fiction flicks, it has also been copied quite a bit.

There are a few different approaches one can take when it comes to science fiction.

  1. You can be enigmatic, arty, and classy like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
  2. You can be extremely scientific, poetic, and subtle like Gattaca (1997).
  3. You can be lugubrious, philosophical, and metaphysical like Solaris (1972).
  4. You can be dark, suspenseful, and horrific like Alien (1979).
  5. You can be kooky, kinky comedy like Sleeper (1973).
  6. You can be fast-paced character-driven razzle-dazzle like Star Wars.
  7. Or (recognizing some of the childishness of space aliens, robots, and super-deluxe-hyper-warp-lightspeed) you can go all-out campy, flashy, trashy like Barbarella (1968).
  8. There is, however, another sub-genre of science fiction. I am referring, of course, to the blatant knock-offs.
You've probably not seen this version of Star Wars from Turkey.

You’ve probably not seen this version of Star Wars from Turkey.

After the release of the first Star Wars movie in 1977 there was a huge sci-fi craze. It seemed almost any movie could be made a better or more profitable movie with the institution of a well-placed spaceship. Movies like The Black Hole (1979), Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), The Last Starfighter (1984), Ice Pirates (1984), and Arena (1988) were cranked out by the bushel. Well, some of my personal favorite worst and also lesser known sci-fi movies made in the wake of the space craze are on my mind today so, naturally, I felt compelled to write about them.


First up is Saturn 3 (1980).

This film is actually a bit more of an Alien rip off. There are essentially only three characters and they are played by (check this out!) Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett, and Harvey Keitel. Before I go any further I must tell you that this film is bad. Really bad. Almost not even so-bad-it’s-kinda-fun-bad. And another thing; I can’t help but feel like the title is even a little oddly derivative of Capricorn 1 (1977).

"I am Spartacus!"

“I am Spartacus!”

Kirk Douglas (Lust for Life) is Adam, an older guy who’s been stuck up on a surprisingly spacious and roomy space-base floating around Saturn. We also see him naked and, I gotta be honest, 20 years since Spartacus and the man is still in shape. Farrah Fawcett (Logan’s Run) is Alex, Adam’s blonde, leggy bed-buddy and his only companion. Together Adam and Eve Alex (I get it!) live quietly in space for no apparent reason (it’s something to do with the government or science or something), until the most evil and warped mind in the galaxy comes aboard. This evil and warped mind belongs to a man named Benson.

Seriously. Benson. Benson is the name of the bad guy. Well, actually he only kills a guy named Benson for some inexplicable reason and assumes his identity, but really now. Benson? Benson is a dim-witted manservant, not a malevolent space villain. Anyway, Benson is played by Harvey Keitel (Mean Streets), but it gets better. Evidently the director was not altogether pleased by Mr. Keitel’s thick Brooklyn accent and so he Keitel awkwardly dubbed by some other robot-sounding British guy (it reminded me of Andie McDowell’s awkward dubbing in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes).

3

It’s the wacky space adventures of Benson the Sociopath and Hector the Murder-Robot!

Benson is revealed to be mentally imbalanced in the beginning of the film (because suspenselessness) and then, once aboard Saturn 3, he puts a giant suppository filled with brains into an 8-ft tall robot named Hector. He gives the robot his own thoughts and then tries to get in Alex’s pants with the most awkward space-future come-on lines since Demolition Man. Adam gets jealous and they talk about killing Benson because he is weird. Then the robot chops their pet dog in half and tries to rape Alex. The movie is a wreck and actually pretty boring despite the presence of a horny, rampaging robot. Saturn 3 also feels simultaneously unnecessarily dark and unintentionally silly. For instance, there is a scene where Hector, the robot, wears Harvey Keitel’s severed head as a hat as a disguise. A very, very bad disguise.


Next up it’s Starcrash (1978), also known as The Adventures of Stella Star. I actually love this movie. It’s near-nonstop mayhem in the same campy vein as Barbarella. But much, much cheaper.

Good to see the distant future portrayed as being so egalitarian.

Good to see the distant future portrayed as being so egalitarian.

The incredibly hot Caroline Munro (The Golden Voyage of Sinbad) stars as the frequently scantily clad Stella Star—the only hope for the galaxy. This film is more blatant a rip off of Star Wars and it is oh-so-hokey.

Outer space looks like an awkward jumble of bad Christmas decorations hastily assembled by a one-eyed crazy person. Who knew the stars and galaxies were so vibrant and psychedelic? The special effects for the spaceships are actually pretty decent, but again, the colors are more akin to a pinball machine that has lost its mind. The malevolent Count Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell) is the bad guy and his hairdo does for evil exactly whatever the name Benson did for evil. He also has his own version of the Death Star, except his is in the shape of a big, evil robot hand that clutches into a fist when it goes into attack mode.

No one messes with the do!

No one messes with the do!

There is also an extremely sexually ambiguous sidekick for Stella. His name is Akton (Marjoe Gortner) and he apparently has a new and incredibly convenient super power in each instance of peril. He bravely dies sword-fighting a stop-motion robot when his arm gets grazed and briefly caught on fire. The film also has a bald green dude, and a good robot with a Texas accent (half the film I just wanted to give him a ten-gallon hat to go with his Dr. Phil-esque homespun aphorisms). Starcrash also boasts  lightsabers and David Hasselhoff (Knight Rider). The costumes are great and I couldn’t help but notice the recurring use of arrows on helmets seemingly pointing to the face of the wearer, and on belt buckles pointing to the crotch.

The movie is crazy and the plot is on crack. We go from an outer space battle to a strange planet to a space jail to the jungle and back into space and then on to another planet with cavemen or amazons and giant robots in like 4 minutes. It’s like the first 60 seconds of the Power Rangers pilot. The film does slow down occasionally. . . for overly long spaceship docking scenes. What you eventually learn is that the film is strategically conditioning you to not care about the characters so you won’t be mad when new characters are randomly introduced and old ones go away or return without rhyme or reason.

The last words Akton says as he lays dying: "Don't worry. I'll live forever."

The last words Akton says as he lays dying: “Don’t worry. I’ll live forever.”

The best part of this movie? It’s a tie between Caroline Munro’s outfits (she dresses like Vampirella) and the great Christopher Plummer’s (The Sound of Music) emotionally detached and disenfranchised line deliveries. You can actually see it in his regretful eyes how much he hates that he’s in this movie. All around the movie is awesomely bad and I highly recommend this frenetically-paced, sexist light show. It’s a great bit of 70′s Italian schlock.


Last and most certainly least is The Man Who Saves the World, or as it is known in its home country, Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam, or as it is most commonly referred to, Turkish Star Wars (1982).

*not Darth Vader

*not Darth Vader

Every time somebody mentions the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) I fire back with Turkish Star Wars. The Star Wars Holiday Special is so bad it makes you wonder how there was a successful franchise afterward.  Turkish Star Wars is so bad it makes you wonder why God has not destroyed humanity yet. Seriously, have the people who made this ever seen a movie before? It is film heresy. The whole spectacle is a noisy, raucous, incoherent Frankenstein mess of a film. It is a mind-boggling artistic travesty on all fronts. AND I LOVE IT!!!

*not racist

*not racist

A guy and his best pal (Murat and Ali) crash land on an alien desert planet and they meet an impoverished, rock-dwelling civilization that is tormented by a big, nasty, beardy space bad guy, who allegedly is a centuries old wizard who needs a human brain so he can understand stuff and conquer the universe. The two guys decide to help the people and proceed to fight the worst excuses for robots and aliens you will ever see. Toilet-paper mummies, dusty zombies, rubber robots, dudes in skeleton outfits, and great big orange stuffed animals, and even racist-looking (African, Asian, and possibly Jewish or maybe Armenian—it’s Turkey, after all) rubber mask baddies, are only the half of it.

The love story between Murat and woman-who’s-name-escapes-me is also great. You see, occasionally jarringly softer music will play and we get reverse closeups of their eyes as they longingly/indifferently gaze at each other while performing mundane space activities. This unprecedented and clashing change of pace denotes romantic interest. Understand?

*not forced romance

*not awkwardly forced romance based solely on the fact that she is maybe blonde

I’d be kidding if I said I could explain the rest of the plot of this weird movie. There are mentions of the virtues of humanity and the human brain as the key to all things (something the filmmakers ironically refused to use for the production of Turkish Star Wars), and vague references to Islam and other things, but the story is so convoluted and poorly executed that it hardly matters. One minute our protagonists are fighting monsters, the next minute they’re in space jail, then the bad guy has monsters slaughter a cave full of frightened orphan children and he proceeds to drink their blood through a crazy straw, then Murat is wielding a giant, golden Final Fantasy sword [made of cardboard] and melting it in a huge vat and then thrusting his bare fists into the molten gold only to have them emerge with clunky gold space mittens on. Seriously. Tone! You can’t murder children in a film like this. It’s like the naked suicide in Endhiran.

*not more realistic than Rocky

*not more realistic than Rocky

One particularly memorable sequence is the training montage where Murat ties boulders to his ankles and goes jogging and then works his fist muscles by slapping big rocks. Instead of the Force, Murat has the amazing power to jump kinda high and karate chop things in half (boulders, stuffed animal monsters, robot heads, *SPOILER ALERT* the bad guy…except that they just black out half the screen and show him on the ground with his eyes closed, and in doing the same for the other half—to truly indicate the pure in-halfedness of our antagonist—the filmmakers also accidentally reveal that both halves apparently have full noses, but I digress). The finale is a jarring, headache-inducing mélange of so much incoherent violence, jumping, and explosions that you will be fighting—and fighting hard—your body’s urge to roll your eyes back in your head and halt all blood-flow to the brain. It’s like Vogon poetry really. Your welcome, Douglas Adams fans.

*not nonsensically -used stolen footage in the background

*not nonsensically -used stolen footage in the background

The absolute best part of Turkish Star Wars is how it is edited. I know that sounds nerdy, but let me explain. Not only does nothing make sense, but the film is notorious for ripping actual stolen footage from the real Star Wars—and several other fantasy movies and even a few newsreels—and splicing them into the movie. And the transfers are just terrible, but I suppose that’s nitpicking. Best of all, they do it at inappropriate times. For example, to show space travel they film a character with a stupid hat moving a wheel while scenes from the assault on the Death Star play behind him (except the real Star Wars footage keeps cutting to other shots so the backgrounds don’t make any sense). The music is also stolen from Raiders of the Lost Ark and a bunch of other popular movies as well.

If this movie weren’t so wonderfully, miserably bad  and hysterically inept it would have been facing an arsenal of lawsuits. People say I’m crazy, but I have actually watched this wretched film at least 5 times. It takes a certain constitution to enjoy bad movies like this. Turkish Star Wars is really more of an endurance test than a film. Are you ready for the challenge?

*not evil stuffed animals

*not evil stuffed animals


There you have it. Saturn 3 you might as well skip as it is the most boring and unimaginative of them all, but it does have a stupid enough plot to keep you with it and the Keitel dub is wondawful. Starcrash is awesome trash and you definitely should see it for Munro’s body and Plummer’s face. Turkish Star Wars you can watch, but this one comes with a warning: it is disorientingly bad and you may not be able to readily relate to people immediately after a viewing, but for Troll 2 and Birdemic fans I must insist you try. At least it’s not After Last Season.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan. 25, 2011.

Quiet and at a Distance

“Tragedy is a close-up, comedy a long shot.”—Buster Keaton

“Life is a tragedy when seen in a close-up, but comedy is a long shot.”—Charlie Chaplin

Playtime---"excuse me."

Playtime—“excuse me.”

The great silent comedians knew it best. The quotes up top reveal much in their simplicity. Serious is personal, funny is removed. When seeing a face contorted by physical or emotional pain, we have a tendency to empathize, but when seen in full juxtaposition against a much bigger world we sometimes get the feeling our own “big” problems are quite silly. Comedy can be a grotesque distortion of the real world or it can be a subtle exaggeration or unexpected emphasis. By taking those necessary steps back and poking fun at misfortune, we get a chuckle, but we can also realize something more telling about our society or identity than we might have anticipated because we are now the omniscient observer. Film teaches us…even when we are laughing.

1

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday—so close but so far

One of the fascinating things about comic film auteur, Jacques Tati, is that it seemed he couldn’t get his camera far enough away from the action. Each successive film he made he moved further and further back until there were no characters, only bumbling specks. There is no plot, only impersonal environment and obstacle. If you saw Sylvain Chomet’s (The Triplets of Belleville) recent masterwork, The Illusionist (2010) then you got a pretty good look at the man (the main character is modeled after Tati very closely and it was based on a script he had written before he died) and you got a sense of his tacit comic style, but to view the actual gentleman’s work is something a bit different.

Like Chaplin’s Tramp, Keaton’s stone-faced stuntman, and Lloyd’s bespectacled everyman, Tati too had a consistent onscreen persona in the form the bungling Monsieur Hulot. Instantly recognizable by his raincoat, hat, umbrella, pipe, and avian stiff-legged gait, Mr. Hulot is a fine comic character that has made his way into cinematic memory. Mr. Hulot found his debut in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953).

Mr. Hulot's Holiday

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday—ready for the beach

Hulot’s Holiday is light and affable and full of many memorable and creative sight gags. Essentially plotless, the movie follows the quiet misadventures of Mr. Hulot at the beach and all of the other peaceful—and far less clumsy—French folks on their seaside vacation. In Hulot’s first outing, we see Tati really toying with film itself to tell the jokes. Tati has been lauded for his impeccable mise-en-scène and we see a budding genius here in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. It’s not what can be seen in each frame, but also what information can be strategically hidden or subliminally inferred.

What Tati does with pictures reminds me of what comedian Bob Newhart did with words. Newhart had several stand-up bits where he would talk on the phone or to an invisible person whose presence was assumed. We never see or hear the other person, but we know exactly what they are doing and saying and thinking based solely on Newhart’s subtle pauses, inflections, and word choices in mock-response. Tati will either give the audience—or only a few characters—a bit of information, such as the surprising presence of a horse for example, and then alternate back and forth between who is privy to said information; the audience or the characters. It was all a clever grown-up game of hide-and-seek.

Mon Oncle

Mon Oncle—a graceful exit

Tati liked to create beautifully set up spaces riddled with obstacles the characters would have to maneuver around. Scenes in Mon Oncle (1958) where we see Mr. Hulot navigating his way up or down from his rustic, old apartment dwelling are strangely, quietly amusing. The camera is always parked directly across the street as if the lens were from a voyeuristic Jimmy Stewart’s perspective. This distance reveals the labyrinthine absurdity and shows the audience the whole picture while Hulot himself is limited from room to room. Like watching the ending of an episode of Legends of the Hidden Temple, we in our chairs see exactly what obstacles lay in the next room before the participant. This allows for either suspense or suspended comedy.

Mon Oncle

Mon Oncle—visiting the sister

The biggest production Tati ever did came in the form of Playtime (1967) and it had several layers to it. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday was an exercise in taking away the relaxation of a trip to the beach from would-be relaxers. Mon Oncle started to have more noticeable elements of satire. Mr. Hulot lives in a dilapidated, yet character-full, old apartment while his sister is obsessed with ever-backfiring modernity. Things are all about keeping up appearances for important guests with inefficient technologies and frivolities that “make our lives easier.” Tati satirizes this with his poetic Hulot character as the simple man who is poor in possessions, but rich in honesty and personality. Playtime takes this concept a step further. In Mon Oncle, modern architecture was merely imposing on old France. In Playtime, modern architecture has entirely engulfed old France. It is one of the grayest, most sterile, and concrete looking films you will probably ever see. The whole spectacle feels far away, hollow, and empty…and it is exactly what Tati was trying to do.

Jacques Tati returns as Mr. Hulot, a wandering old soul trying to find his way in this faceless new world. All of Tati’s/Hulot’s beloved old France has been relegated to a single street corner (in the form of an anachronistic-looking woman selling flowers under a tarpaulin). The real France is only ever hinted at in reflections or off in the distance behind “more important modern things.” Tati’s trademark plotlessness afforded him great opportunities to make very high-concept films about ideas and abstractions like modern city living in Playtime. One of my personal favorite sequences comes toward the beginning where Mr. Hulot is trying meet with someone and waits and waits and then, fed up with waiting, embarks on his own through a very homogeneous edifice interior full of identical hallways, rooms, cubicles, elevators, and people. Tati also plays with reflections and glass barriers to wonderfully inventive comic effect throughout Playtime.

Playtime

Playtime—the maze of cubicles

The running gag throughout Playtime is that modern (and many times American) culture has eaten the old world. Several of the characters are American tourists looking for old Paris, but happily accepting the modern soulless replacements. They get off the plane and wander through an immensely sterile and impersonal airport, board a modern looking bus, get stuck in a traffic orgy of nearly indistinguishable cars, and wander the cold concrete corridors of all that is left of Paris. One marvelous moment comes when a tourist is about to enter another very modern building and catches a fleeting glimpse of the Eiffel Tower in the reflection of the glass door as she opens it. For a brief moment the tourist is struck by the magic and then continues on her way to shopping and sales.

Tati’s biases are clear and obvious, but his clever delivery of all these statements is masterful. Hulot visits friends in their big-windowed apartment (nothing like his place from Mon Oncle) and the camera stays outside watching the silent, ironic, and humorous events transpire from across the street. The scene is about ten minutes long and all we see for this ten minutes is a grid of square windows with people watching televisions inside (the juxtaposition ventures to ask, “who’s really on display here?”) and all we hear is the passing cars outside. Everything is conjured to be as unnatural as possible. Another classic gag comes when an apartment denizen leaves to walk his dog and as soon as he steps outside the little dog hops up off the concrete and onto the only green in the film: a pitiful strip of astro-turf lining the building.

Playtime--travel agency.

Playtime–travel agency.

It’s more than a re-imagining of Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). The humor is soft and subtle and easy to miss if you’re not paying close attention to what Tati is doing. One joke I missed the first time I saw this was a gag involving a heated argument and then the “slamming” of a new and improved silent door. Those people expecting to find Mr. Hulot as a central figure in this huge film will be disappointed. Mr. Hulot has become not only distant from the camera, but distant from most of the action. Hulot has become just another character in a sea of faces, but his is still the most familiar and I’d say the most amusing. In parodying city life and the heart-breaking trend of embracing all that is sleek, streamlined, and new while bulldozing the artful past, Tati creates a film unlike any other. Cold buildings tower over gaudily dressed cartoon characters of the human race and kowtow to all things modern. The tragedy is, just like in Brazil, the modern stuff doesn’t always work and Tati would argue it is also far less pretty.

Playtime meanders about and then finally culminates in a swanky restaurant’s ill-fated opening night before sending all the tourists on their carnival ride through Paris traffic back to the airport. Fitting this film should end with traffic as Tati’s next film and final outing as Mr. Hulot would be Traffic (1971). Traffic gets crapped on as being lesser Tati, but it is still great and very clever. Playtime is a tough act to follow. In viewing Tati’s canon one gets the feeling he was feeling more and more archaic and out of place in a world that was constantly changing. He was a dinosaur, a silent comedian trapped in a land of sound, a wandering poet drowning in a sea of science. Mr. Hulot is really a tragic figure and many of the ideas in Tati’s films are rather sad and unfortunate when you think about how true so many of them are or have become…but then, he set the camera far enough back. From this safe distance we could clearly see the anarchy and lunacy of our society and appreciate the grim comedy of it all. Up close, many of the most important comedies would be far more serious affairs.

Traffic

Traffic

Many an homage has been made to the great Tati’s contributions to film and comedy, from Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) to Elia Suleiman (Divine Intervention), but there aren’t many comedy directors today that are as bold and articulate as Jacques Tati was at the height of his powers. When comedy is at its best it is as intellectually effectual and perceptive as drama, but it has the added bonus of being clever and letting us laugh at ourselves too.

Top 10 Reasons to See the Films of Jacques Tati:

Jacques Tati (1907-1982)

Jacques Tati (1907-1982)

1. He was one of the last great silent comedians, keeping it alive and respectable well into the 1970s.

2. You think comedies don’t have as much artistic merit or visual brilliance as other genres? Correct your misconception.

3. He is regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time…and he only made six features.

4. Playtime was the most expensive French film ever made up until that time so make his investment worth it.

5. You liked The Illusionist? Good. Now you can make it even more funny and important.

6. Impress your friends with knowledge of famous French filmmakers that aren’t Francois Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard.

7. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I genuinely find him funny.

8. I can think of three truly memorable comic walks: Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx, and Jacques Tati…then there’s the whole Monty Python’s Flying Circus “Ministry of Silly Walks,” but that’s another story.

9. If you saw Elia Suleiman’s Palestinian film Divine Intervention (2002) and were lost or didn’t get it, acquainting yourself with Tati will really explain a lot of the mechanics of his film and, I think, make it funnier and more rewarding.

10. If you like your comedy to be significant or have a subtle, jabbing commentary to it, check out Mon Oncle, Playtime, or Traffic. Or if you’d rather comedy just be amusing without heavy societal messages watch Mr. Hulot’s Holdiay.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 28, 2011.

Koo!

So what do you think of when I say “great science-fiction comedy”? How about Georgi Daneliya’s Russian cult epic Kin-dza-dza! (1986)? Kin-dza-dza! remains fairly obscure in the west…and this bothers me. Like so many weird and wonderful foreign films, it is currently hard to come by. This just won’t do.

"Where are we?"

“Where are we?”

Here’s the setup for this oh-so-sweet movie. A humorless construction foreman (known only as Uncle Vova)—on his way to the supermarket for his wife—is accosted by a younger comrade (known only as The Fiddler). The Fiddler tells the stranger that a shoeless man, presumably drunk and insane, is lost. They offer to call a policeman for him, but the shoeless man just insists he is from another planet and continues to fiddle with his space gadget. Incredulous, the two strangers reach for the device and are suddenly transported from downtown Moscow to a barren desert wasteland. It is the planet of Pluke in the Kin-dza-dza galaxy. And so our tale begins.

At first Uncle Vova (Stanislav Lyubshin) remains staunchly skeptical that they are indeed on another planet. This denial is clearly for his own sanity. The Fiddler (Levan Gabriadze) suggests interplanetary possibilities, but Vova dismisses them all in favor of some Earth desert estimations.

Faster, Planark!

Faster, Platzak!

They wander about in the parched abyss, when suddenly, out of nowhere, a large, rusty, rickety flying metal bucket riddled with dings and dents hovers right up to them and makes a sloppy landing in front of the earthlings. The hatch opens and a short, stocky gentleman in simple, uncouth togs steps out, accompanied by a similarly dressed but taller gentleman in a man-sized canary cage. They are Wef, played by Evgeni Leonov and Bee, played by Yuriy Yakovlev. Together they engage in synchronized squatting whilst reciting the fictitious word koo in unison over and over. Utterly bewildered, yet unyieldingly accepting of this peculiar performance, Vova and the Fiddler attempt communication. They attempt Russian, Georgian, English, and French and all they ever hear back from the two unkempt aeronauts are the unmistakable words, koo and kyoo.* Eventually the stranded Soviets figure out that they can bribe their new friends to take them in their craft in exchange for matches.

*Koo and kyoo comprise the bulk of the Plukanian language.

A gorgeous land.

A gorgeous land.

After many minutes with the human-like “aliens” everybody starts to speak Russian. Apparently the Plukanians are telepathic and it took them some time to learn the thoughts and subsequent language of the earthlings. Once the language barrier is removed we get a lesson in interplanetary culture…also Uncle Vova and the Fiddler must wear tiny bells on their noses out of respect. Pluke has a very strict caste system.

The desert planet of Pluke is a real tough place. Everyone (like eight people) is mean and only thinks of themselves. Their resources are all but wiped out and the land is sparsely populated (like eight people) and is drying up. Promises are worth little or nothing as you will more likely be swindled and cheated than helped. There are two types of people on the planet: the Chatlanians and the Patsaks, the latter of which, although indistinguishable from the former, is considered to be of a lower caste and must perform degrading rituals—such as being in a man-sized canary cage while in the presence of Chatlanians—to avoid punishment for impudence. The class differentiation seems almost entirely arbitrary. The higher class Chatlanians get to sleep on beds without nails and they cannot be beaten in the middle of the night. The lower class Patsaks are not so lucky. Matches are apparently very valuable. Water is rare. Police are corrupt. There are about thirteen words in the Plukanian language that can be translated. All other words are koo. A popular expletive is kyoo.

Travel gets cozy.

Travel gets cozy.

A particularly humorous bit comes at about the halfway mark where a title screen comes up and summarizes all of the words on Pluke we have learned so far. It doesn’t take long.

I won’t go into all the elements of the plot. Kin-dza-dza! is essentially a space travel comedy about two dudes trying to get back to Moscow and learning about human nature and friendship. That’s really all you need to know. The rest is just a string of absurdity, oddity, and japery. Be it the fear of being turned into a cactus by a higher being, or singing earth songs for money, or the ludicrousness of the many bizarre rituals lower castes must perform, or the way in which the earthlings are deceived and must use their heads to get wise and make it on Pluke, it’s all for a laugh. And it’s a good laugh too. Amidst the budding friendships and backstabbing there is always room for bizarre absurdist humor.

Great hats.

Great hats.

One thing that is particularly striking about the film are the jabs at capitalism and some of its pro-communist themes. One of the reasons why Pluke is so backwards and dehydrated is because of class struggles and wanton spending and exhaustion of natural resources. It is a dog eat dog world and nobody trusts each other and many have been reduced to begging. Only when the stiff Uncle Vova can accept his traveling companion, the Fiddler, and the Plukanians as his comrades and equals can they return to earth. We even learn Uncle Vova and the Fiddler’s real names: Vladimir and Gedevan. There must be social equality and mutual understanding in order for progress to take shape. Although Wef and Bee may never fully understand self-sacrifice or friendship and may never fully trust the earthlings, they wind up helping them get back to earth anyway.

It’s a kooky movie all around. Kin-dza-dza! is a consistently odd and humorous space saga with interesting characters and a truly absurd sense of humor. It is an amusing journey with philosophical and social undertones which as of yet remains unavailable in the United States. Someone needs to release this on DVD or Bluray. It’s got it all: spaceships, singing, funny hats, you name it. It’s great.

Kyoo!

Kyoo!

Top 10 Reasons to See Kin-dza-dza!

1. It’s funny!

2. The spaceships, although clunky, are just as awesome as anything in Star Wars.

3. It’s interesting to see a film from such a pro-communist perspective…the opposite of say, Krzysztof Kieślowski or Zbyněk Brynych which represent a more markedly anti-communist sentiment.

4. Did I not already mention the humorousness of the headgear (aka funny hats)?

5. Grown men wear bells on their noses.

6. It’s one of the more original outer-space movies you’re likely to find.

7. It’s obscure and kitschy and therefore tickles your anti-mainstream sensibilities.

8. Although visually sparse and minimalistic at times, the juxtapositions and mise-en-scène are wonderfully surreal (at times it feels to be a cross between Jodorowsky’s El Topo and The Bed-Sitting Room).

9. If you enjoyed reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy then you will definitely like this movie.

10. Koo!

Bonus Reason:

11. Kyoo!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Dec. 8, 2010