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.

Everybody Loves Satyajit Ray

Not all Indian cinema is bombastic Bollywood musicals.

Every so often a film or filmmaker reaches us at just the right time in our lives. Thus was my late introduction to Indian auteur, Satyajit Ray, and his films Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956), and Apur Sansar (1959), together making up the Apu Trilogy. Perhaps it is just the unpredictability of life and apparent insensitivity of fate featured in these movies that make them so readily understandable despite the great cultural gap, or perhaps it is something more. Granted, tragedy plays a huge part in all three films, but I do not think I would love them so much if they were devoid of any hope or redemption.

pather panchali2Ray’s style is almost documentarian in execution and one must pay very close attention to the women in his films. Like Japanese director, Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu monogatari, 1953), Satyajit Ray likes to portray the struggles and plights of women in patriarchal society with compassion and humanity. The Apu Trilogy is a family history. Characters are introduced, but not all will make it to the end. (Warning: spoilers ahead…but I do not think revealing too much can weaken these films’ impact).

The first film, Pather Panchali (a.k.a. The Song of the Little Road) is the story of the Ray family in the provincial village of Bengal, India in the 1920s. The struggling Brahmin family consists of the naive poet father, Harihar (Kanu Bannerjee); the stoic mother, Sarbajaya (Karuna Bannerjee); their daughter, Durga (Runki Banerjee and Uma Das Gupta); Sarbajaya’s elderly sister-in-law, Aunt Indir Thakrun (Chunibala Devi); and soon Apu (Subir Bannerjee) is born.

pather panchali1

The narrative is not forced. Pather Panchali feels like a slice of life and reminiscent of Vittorio de Sica with its Neo-Realist approach and use of non-actors. Things happen. Emotions rise and fall. We see the whimsy of old Aunt Indir and we see the simple ideals of Harihar wax away. We see a poor mother’s internal struggle with her foolish husband (reminding me quite a bit of Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu monogatari) and her strained relationship with Indir and her torment at the hands of the village folk who persecute her for the way her daughter behaves. We see young Durga steal fruit and cause her mother much duress and we thrill with little Apu and his beloved sister when they makeup after a fight and they see the train rush by for the first time as they race through fields of tall grass.

We are introduced to these characters as if they are real people, not mere pawns to move a plot forward. In a way, there is no plot. Satyajit Ray’s character’s are the impotent victims of the unsentimental storm of life and our hearts are broken for them as we witness their misfortunes and we count the lines on their weather-worn faces as the years go by. Death’s sting is especially potent in this film. Sickness, death, and other hardships meet this family and rob them of much, and as the glue that holds them together is rubbed thin we find a melancholy solace in the knowledge that sometimes we must simply press on.

aparajito1

The second film, Aparajito (a.k.a. The Unvanquished) is just as heart-rending. The dwindling Ray family must continue on. This marks one of the first sequels (for me anyway) where I was really saddened that certain characters would not be returning. I noticed the quiet expressions in their faces when they were thinking about their loved ones who did not make it.

Apu (Pinaki Sengupta and Smaran Ghosel) is growing older and making friends in the city of Benares where they have moved. His father, Harihar, works as a priest, but when he falls sick and does not survive, Sarbajaya is left alone to provide for herself and her young son. They move to the Ray ancestral village of Mansapota and she works as a maid.

Aparajito2

Sarbajaya is my favorite character. Her struggles as a woman, a wife, and a mother in a harsh world that has not done her any favors is mesmerizing and tragic. She is stoic and levelheaded, but over the course of the two films we witness the toll the tough years take on her. She is just one woman who has not ended up where she probably originally hoped or thought, and she must take care of her family despite all her pain. Her portrait, brilliantly played by Karuna Bannerjee, is beautiful, powerful, and heart breaking.

Apu is apprenticed to be a Brahmin like his father, but attracted by some children playing along a road, asks his mother to let him go to school. He discovers the joys of learning. Sarbajaya feels like Apu can learn and bring honor back to the family. Perhaps the next generation of the Ray family will not be as unfortunate, Sarbajaya’s eyes read. Apu proves a diligent scholar and is awarded a scholarship to a prestigious school in Calcutta. At the sudden prospect of being truly alone, Sarbajaya tries to dissuade Apu from furthering his academic career, but realizes how much it would mean to him and gives Apu her savings and allows him to go. Apu grows and learns while Sarbajaya grows lonely and older. She hides her failing health from her son but quietly wishes he would return to see her. When he does return it is too late. Devastated, Apu ignores the urging to stay in the village and be a priest so he returns to Calcutta to perform the last rites for his mother. He will make something of himself even if no one will be there to see it.

MBDWOOF EC052

The final installment, Apur Sansar (a.k.a. The World of Apu) shifts all focus onto an older Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee) as a poor graduate living in Calcutta. He sells his books to pay rent and he lazily searches for work to pay for university tuition and works on writing a novel based on his life. He meets an old friend, Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee), who must attend a cousin’s marriage and, not desiring to go alone, urges Apu to join him.

They travel to the village of Khulna for the ceremony where things do not go exactly as expected. As Satyajit Ray continues this exploration of the tragedy and beauty of the unexpected, the bridegroom shows up on time, but has a severe mental disorder so the bride and bride’s mother become extremely upset. The father and elders insist that their daughter, Aparna (Sharmila Tagore), will be cursed if she does not marry on the appointed day. In their efforts to fix the doomed marriage, Pulu and the elders elect Apu as the replacement groom. Apu, disturbed by the sudden idea, finally agrees to marry Aparna (since his life isn’t really going anywhere else). Apu warns Aparna that he is very poor and although she is initially disappointed with their meager wages and shabby apartment, she does indeed fall in love with him.

apur sansar 7

The marriage actually gives Apu a wake-up call and he begins working as a cleric. He teaches his wife things that he learned in school. They write letters when they are apart and their love grows, but tragedy (naturally) strikes when the beautiful Aparna dies giving birth to their son while away. Apu rejects everything and runs away from the world. He hates the child he has never seen, but he sends money to his father-in-law to take care of him. Apu lets the wind take his manuscript as he releases it on a mountaintop and weeps. Life without his beloved Aparna is not worth living. Why would fate torment him like this?

After many years of forsaking his fatherly responsibilities Pulu finds him and urges Apu to see his son, Kajal, and father the boy (who is becoming quite wild in his grandfather’s care). After much convincing, Apu goes to retrieve his son from his father-in-law, but the boy does not think Apu is his father, but perhaps he may accept his confidence as a friend. They depart together to start a new life.

apur sansar 1

As the saga of Apu and the Ray family comes to a close and we dry the tears from our eyes and take a deep breath at the emotional depths these movies have taken us, we can pause and thank God for directors like Satyajit Ray. Pensive cinematography, shimmering sitar score composed by Ravi Shankar, close-ups loaded with emotion and thought, and the journey of one filmmaker are just a few reasons to find these movies and watch them. We see Satyajit Ray grow as a filmmaker and become more sure of humself with each new chapter in this beautiful trilogy. This experience really whet my appetite for more films of Satyajit Ray.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” January 30, 2010.

The Movies You Didn’t See

brewster-mccloud 2

If you are a true movie lover then you are also a digger, a searcher, an explorer. You seek out movies. Finding the “other films” out there might be your mission. You are daring. You lap up silent cinema and tuck away great foreign flicks under your arm and you mull classics and contemporary titles over in your mind while always maintaining a healthy reserve of schlock and exploitation, but your thirst remains insatiable, unquenched. You must dig. You must search. You must explore that which swims beneath the surface of the mainstream.

Today I give you an assignment. Today I tantalize you with just a few titles that you won’t want to miss. Today I champion some wonderful and strange films that think way outside the box and that have yet to be released on DVD in America* [*AUTHOR’S UPDATE: Criterion has picked up Zazie dans le Metro and there’s a region-free Hour-Glass Sanitorium now currently available through Mr. Bongo. Currently unsure of the other two]. Here we go with Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le metro (1960); Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud (1970); Wojciech Has’s The Hour-Glass Sanitorium (1973); and Tomas Vorel’s Skritek (2005). WARNING: proceed only if you are into the realm of the zany and awry.

zazie dans le mtro

1. The first film I would like to inform you of hails from France. It is Louis Malle’s (Au revoir les enfants, My Dinner With Andre) frantically frenetic and buoyantly cartoonish Zazie dans le metro (1960). Based on the novel by Raymond Queneau, this unique film feels like some sort of coming of age tale, a burlesque comedy, and “Looney Tunes” hybrid. Young Zazie (Catherine Demongeot) must spend a few days with her lazy and unusual Parisian Uncle Gabriel (Cinema Paradiso’s Philippe Noiret) so her mother can entertain herself in the arms of her new lover.

The precocious girl soon grows weary with Uncle Gabriel’s peculiar habits and schedule and so she runs away to explore the city of Paris by herself. Uninterested in the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, or any other monument or locale of note, Zazie obsesses over just one thing: the metro. . . unfortunately there’s a strike on and the metro is closed. Just like the grownups to block the only thing a little kid wants to do. Zazie is pursued by angry Parisians, cops, would-be perverts, her uncle, and more while the adults fall in and out of love with each other against the manically shifting scenery and bustling cars and shows featuring slight transvestism and more than one man in a polar bear costume. A highlight is an extremely energetic and ridiculous chase scene that plays out like a Roadrunner cartoon on methamphetamines (think that one scene from Stephen Chow’s Kung-Fu Hustle only screwier).

zazie

This is a deliriously hyperactive movie that captures the essence of childhood wonder better than most “normal films.” All the intertwining of plots and unraveling of characters culminate in a psychotic explosion of noise, movement, and laugh out loud comedy that will make your head spin. This movie is just whimsical. I highly recommend this bold and wacky comedy brimming with sass and snark for anyone looking for the craziest most frenzied and absurd trip to Paris they’re likely to find. Or perhaps if you just like good slapstick.

2. Bud Cort (Harold and Maude) stars as the eponymous and quite quixotic Brewster McCloud in Robert Altman’s (M*A*S*HGosford Park) Brewster McCloud (1970). This is one strange film. With the adolescent angst and awkward foibles of the average American youth, the enigmatic Brewster lives in the fallout shelter of the Houston Astrodome perfecting his mechanical wings so that he can fly away. As the tagline winkingly suggests “this might be over your head.” Women find the quiet boy irresistible and the police find him rather elusive as they pursue him for the suspected stranglings of several not-so-upright citizens. There’s a cantankerous old man (Stacey Keach); a nasty old woman (Margaret Hamilton, with more than just a few nods to her work in The Wizard of Oz); a ditzy but compassionate tour guide (Shelley Duvall) who loves Brewster; a mysterious and angelic mentor (Sally Kellerman) who protects Brewster and warns him of the dangers of women and distractions from his goal; a detective (Michael Murphy) hot on his trail; and several other quirky characters mashed together including a narrator who is not exactly on the same page.

brewster-mccloud 1

Amidst all the murder, mayhem, car chases, and courtships there is always a cutaway to the narrator, a lecturing professor of ornithology (Rene Auberjonois), who not only is describing the habits and behaviors of many a fascinating fowl (which strangely coincides with the main character’s actions) but he is also progressively transforming into a bird himself until at last he is reduced to a squawking, pecking aviary curiosity. The movie is off-beat and unusual in many ways, but at its heart it seems to really be about being alone yet driven in a world that is preoccupied with other things. Brewster McCloud only wants to build his wings in peace and take flight in the Astrodome. He tries to avoid distraction and distances himself from people as much as possible, but people keep getting in the way and none of them understand him or what he is trying to do. The finale is especially enjoyable. Find Brewster McCloud and take flight. If we share as much in common with birds as the transforming lecturer would imply then perhaps there is plenty to relate to here.

hourglasssanitorium 2

3. Our next film comes from Polish auteur Wojciech Has (The Saragossa Manuscript) and is called The Hour-Glass Sanatorium (aka Sanatorium pod klepsydra) (1973). Based on the writings of Bruno Schultz, the story unfolds in an old, decrepit, silverfish-nibbled asylum. A man, Jozef (Jan Nowicki), has taken a ramshackle train to this place to see his dying father. The building is crumbling and there seems to be no one in charge (Svankmajer would love it). A ward tells him that Time may not make all the sense in the world here, and lo, it is true. Jozef wanders from room to room in search of answers but is instead greeted by characters and events from history, his childhood, and his more recent past. The story unfolds like a more psychoanalytical Alice in Wonderland for adults. Every room is bursting with Jozef’s lost memories. Jozef re-experiences his childhood and his relationship with his bird-loving father, sees women he once fancied, is pursued by soldiers for having an unpopular dream, observes strange Jewish rituals, and takes command of a room of waxwork historical figures.

hourglasssanitorium 1

The cinematography is utterly remarkable and the imagery is nothing short of staggering (very evocative of some of the best work of Terry Gilliam). The film has poetry, wonder, curiosity, magic, and humor as we are carried through this dream world of wondrous pageantry. It’s a difficult film to describe, but it is also very difficult to forget. The director of the amazing Saragossa Manuscript (a masterpiece loved by such artists as Luis Bunuel, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Jerry Garcia) has crafted another world from bits and pieces of the past and you will enjoy exploring it as much as the protagonist, Jozef. For a thrilling excavation of the back of the mind, check out the fantastic Hour-Glass Sanatorium. It has also been brought to my attention that the Svankmajer-influenced Brothers Quay (The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes) may be adapting Schultz’s prose to the screen again.

skritek 1

4. We have been to France to be children with Zazie, come back to America to be adolescents with Brewster McCloud, and hopped over to Poland to rediscover our past as adults with Jozef’s exploration of a strange sanatorium. Now we shall embark on a trip to the Czech Republic to combine all these things with a movie about one dysfunctional family in Tomas Vorel’s Skritek (2005). This magically absurd tragicomedy about the dynamics of a struggling family is unique for many reasons. One is the ubiquitous intrusion of a distracting gnome (skritek is Czech for “gnome”), the second odd thing about this movie is that all of the dialogue is spoken in complete gibberish (so don’t try to look for subtitles). As the plot unfolds the young daughter struggles with her teacher in school and her family at home, so she occasionally is visited by the strange gnome who always finds a way to cheer her up. The pot-smoking, vegetarian, anarchist son is trying to express himself but—ignoring entirely legal means of self-expression—winds up in trouble with his teachers and the police. The father works as a butcher, but weary of the routine which has become his life, begins an affair with a co-worker. Meanwhile the mother works as a cashier at a supermarket, but with the stress of her job, her family going in different directions, and her husband losing interest in her, she’ll try anything to revitalize her life.

skritek2

The whole story is set against a rather cartoony version of the Czech Republic with vibrant colors, exaggerated sound effects, vaudevillian action, and a toe-tapping score. As problems befall the family we grow to see them as more than caricatures, but as people and we feel their anxieties and we smile when it all comes together. This is a very original movie with much humor, heart, slapstick, and magic to offer. If you are looking for an unforgettable journey through one family’s crazy life with zero language barrier then I encourage to see Skritek.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Where can I find these movies if they are not available? Why would you entice me this way? Well, here’s where it can get fun. We live in an age of instant gratification and sometimes the search is half the fun. You might have to get creative. Some of these films are floating around online right now. Some have been bootlegged as rentals in cult movie shops. Some might be tricky. Always keep your eyes and ears open and above all: read. You might be surprised by what you find. I’m still discovering movies like this everyday. Sometimes it just takes a little bit of research and a little bit of patience and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

skritek 3

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 2, 2010