Burns and Allen Deconstructed: Classic TV with a Darker Subtext

On the surface The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1950-1958) appears like your typical early sitcom in the pioneering days of television. Gracie (Grace Allen) is a nutty and unsuppressible ditz who’s always mixing up words and meanings to delightfully malapropic comic effect, while her accountant husband, George (George Burns), is the cigar smoking straight-man. But look a little deeper and you see a subtly surreal meta tragedy of mythic proportions.

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What I am about to recount to you are my observations surrounding the legendary sitcom. Granted, my findings are based only on personal experiences and not necessarily founded in actual science.

George (Burns, that is) exists in seemingly two different worlds. First there is the husband and straight-man role he occupies quite serviceably, but he also dons the role as the semi-omniscent narrator to the events of the show. The laughter induced by a recent scene ends, the lights go down, and George appears in front of a curtain—passing through the looking-glass—and he begins to explain things to the audience directly. He summarizes and he fills in missing scenes and he puffs his cigar. It appears as though he has one foot firmly planted in a different reality. But is the other side of the curtain the real reality or are the laughs only in his mind?

If the audience is indeed real then is George Burns some sort of droll demigod? He is privy to certain information on the stage, but not all. He knows events that recently occurred and he knows some things that he was not even present for and occasionally he knows a few minutes into the next scene that will arrive shortly, but he rarely knows the ultimate outcome of these scenes. He only knows where he just came from, what other characters are doing right now off-screen and he knows everything that happened earlier and some things that have yet to transpire. He is borderline psychic, but even if he knows the route things will take he is still doomed to go through the motions and see them through to the end.

I knew this would happen.

I knew this would happen.

Here is the show in a nutshell: George Burns narrates half the events as they really happen before they happen but then he gets interrupted by the action as its happening, like the “tape delay” has caught up with him and is sucking him back four minutes into the past. What a hellish existence.

After a few laughs and a few cigar puffs Burns leaves the audience and returns to the sitcom world where his powers are meaningless and unknown. What if he could tell them all: “Hey, I knew you would say that” or “Don’t let her in. She doesn’t really have pie”? Surely they’d take him for a madman. I am certain Gracie would have some wry misinformed quip to lighten the mood should they conflagrate him a witch.

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George Burns is a trapped victim living between two dimensions each equally alienating in their own way. There exists, however, another disturbing element to the Burns and Allen Show. Like many sitcoms and variety shows of the era when TV was new, commercials were oft times eerily interwoven into the events of the plot. Television had yet to fully separate the programs from the sponsors and the results were a Twin Peaks-esque nightmare of drama-driven advertising. Frequently characters will appear with strange quasi-hidden posters or product samples. Claiming to have some relation to the Burns and Allen storyline they would invite themselves in, skitter through their phony setups only to reveal their ulterior motives. It’s forecast pretty loudly so it’s hard to miss an impending in-show commercial, yet they always manage to surprise me with their thinness and surreality.

Burns knows this scam (I think), yet he is powerless to stop it. Perhaps he is aware that if he stops the advertisers from doing their bizarre ritualistic spiel then Carnation Instant Milk Powder will pull the plug on the money-flow that sustains Burns and Allen. Essentially to stop them is suicide. But what quality of life does he really have? Who is George Burns really? Does he sleep in the world of separate twin-beds, sitcom setups, and no toilets or does he make camp in front of the curtain?

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George Burns might have been a sort of failed Messiah. Perhaps he had it in his power to open up everyone’s eyes. He could have told the characters of the sham they were living. He could have given them the Pleasantville revelation that they are merely acting out a fictitious plot for the amusement of a savvy 50’s television audience. Maybe Burns could take Gracie and the cast by the hand and lead them to the other side of the curtain and open their eyes. But would this revelation not blow their mind? Think of the Square from Edwin Abbott Abbott’s mathematical masterpiece “Flatland.”

On occasion he does manage to pull Gracie to the other side, but her dimness of wit makes her ill-equipped to get a handle on things and she merely blathers on in character. Can she not recognize her salvation when it is at hand?

There is the risk that the studio audience on the other side of the curtain is just the hallucinatory manifestations of a deranged and deeply introspective George Burns. But how come Gracie pretends she can see it too when he transports her?

Maybe it’s a risk worth taking. They could escape the advertisements and the tinny laughter. Maybe color would even be granted the weary travelers. Would that then be Nirvana? Not the band, but the utopic state of being in the afterlife. Maybe the band. The British Nirvana from the 60s though, not the other one.

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It is mere folly to speculate as Burns proved to be a failed Messiah. He never did bring divine revelation to his fellow cast members of this sick play. Maybe he was just a lost lesser X-Men who never realized his potential. Perhaps he never knew the others were not semi-psychic. How alone he must have felt.

No, George Burns was no Messiah.

But he did play God later.

…John Denver was a terrible actor.

http://vintage45.wordpress.com/2011/07/11/the-george-burns-and-gracie-allen-show-1950-58/

http://culturalproductionblog.com/?p=391

http://www.popscreen.com/v/61X0t/The-George-Burns–Gracie-Allen-show

http://www.oocities.org/4christ.geo/tour/cast_list.html

http://www.homevideos.com/movies/ohgod

Originally published for The Alternative Chronicle on April 18, 2013.

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The Toys are Back in Town

It was dark and we were returning from Albany. As the heavy Northeastern rains pummeled the little gold Chevy with the raging gusto of a typhoon we thought back on the evening’s occurrences. We had done something we had joked about doing but perhaps never fully planned on it actually happening. The wipers blinked for the windshield and the events of barely an hour ago finally took root in our stuffed brains.

We had watched Toys (1992) again.

Every so often a filmmaker has a passion project. Something that only he or she understands. Sometimes it’s a masterpiece. Like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). Sometimes it’s not. Like John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974). Toys is not.

Perhaps director Barry Levinson gets crapped on too much. True he did Envy (2004) and Man of the Year (2006), but he also did stuff like Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Rain Man (1988), and Wag the Dog (1997). Not so small confession: I actually liked Sphere (1998) and Young Sherlock Holmes (1985). He’s got some solid films under his belt. So why shouldn’t Barry Levinson get to make his huge passion project that only he understands? Because it’s Toys. That’s why.

Most folks probably don’t even remember Toys. It did poorly when it originally came out and never really became popular. I suppose it has a strange cult following in the right circles. Toys is one of those films that haunted me in the video stores of my childhood. Such an appealingly surreal cover…and starring Robin Williams. The portrait of whimsy which was its VHS box was in curious contrast to its PG-13 rating. When I finally saw it years ago I was confused. In many ways it resembles a competent film. It has absolutely fantastic set designs and art direction—courtesy of Fernando Scarfiotti (The Last Emperor) and Linda DeScenna (Blade Runner). In this way it still resembles a sumptuous and imaginative children’s story. The story isn’t even all bad. It’s a simple tale of the clash between silly gentle toys and encroaching war toys and violent video games. It even has a pretty interesting cast that includes Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting), Michael Gambon (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover), Robin Wright (The Princess Bride), Joan Cusack (Toy Story 2), LL Cool J (Deep Blue Sea), Yeardley Smith (The Simpsons), Arthur Malet (Hook), Jack Warden (Being There), Jamie Foxx (In Living Color), and even Donald O’Connor (Singin’ in the Rain). Weird lineup? I said interesting cast.

I did appreciate bits of it a little more on this second and more recent viewing. I must admit that there are a few delightfully askew ideas sloshing around in this clunky and embarrassingly slow and unengaging movie, but ultimately things never seems to click. It’s like Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980); it’s bad, but it’s weird-bad and you can’t look away. Robin Williams is a somewhat undefined childlike toy inventor named Leslie Zevo. When Leslie’s kindly father (O’Connor) dies the toy factory is given to Papa Zevo’s warmongering nephew Lt. General Leland Zevo (Gambon) who has an unquenchable desire to please his own stern and dying military father (Warden). Obviously the General takes over and the factory ceases production of cuddly whimsical toys in favor of manipulative violent tools to groom young minds for military service and destruction.

There’s a desperation in the film. Despite some pretty and intriguing images (occasionally inspired by Rene Magritte it would seem) it feels empty, exhausting, and slow. There’s no heart. The dialogue is all hushed whispers, like Mr. Rogers on Valium. Toys is so quiet! A movie this big and zany looking deserves a little energy and life. Robin Williams is bizarrely understated and doesn’t have a strong character and he’s hard to relate to as Leslie Zevo, not to mention the fact that he’s been a lot funnier in other things. The music’s kinda bad too and awkwardly dates the project. Sorry, Hans Zimmer.

Then there’s the pacing which feels off and despite amazing sets and some great subtle visual gags involving the scenery, the film feels joyless and extremely talkie. This is probably why the film was not aimed at kids. While it has an infant sort of logic to it and the colors are tantalizing, the movie would put them to sleep. Then there’s the one real reason the kids shouldn’t see it: Robin Williams’ sex scene with Robin Wright. That’s right. There’s steamy premarital Robin on Robin action in this flick. OK, so you don’t see anything, but you hear them and you see her take her bra off and then it falls on a spying robot. Then you see Jamie Foxx becoming aroused in a spy van as he listens to Williams’ sex grunts. It’s sick.


Towards the end Williams gives a mash-up of about thirty inspirational speeches to an impromptu army of gentle toys just before they get slaughtered in battle. Can you not seize the day hard enough? I sure can’t. Who is he talking to? The audience? Himself? I wonder if the non-sentient toys can sense him just going through the motions. He seems about as disinterested in the project as Harrison Ford in Blade Runner. Bill Murray had more energy in Ghostbusters 2 for godsakes.

The best things in Toys are the small cute touches like a Zevo car having to stop in the hallway for toy ducks to pass, but they are not enough. Toys is mind-numbingly slow. And I’m a Tarkovsky fan! The characters are inexcusably shallow and uninteresting (Gambon having the most interesting character but he still feels half-baked). The few jokes there are are forgettable, too understated, and spookily quiet. It’s not really a children’s movie and it’s not really an adult movie. I can’t even defend it as an art movie. What is Toys?

Toys is Barry Levinson’s Zardoz.

Forget what Toys is. What the blazes is a sea swine? There’s an unexplained amorphous cybernetic amphibious creature towards the end whose existence is accepted a little too readily by the characters. Is it a real animal the General has tampered with genetically? Is it a squishy robot that needs to live in murky water? If it resembles more of a snail-like graboid where do they get off calling it a “swine?”

I get what is trying to happen and what the story is trying to do and say and maybe the advent of drone warfare makes the film eerily more prescient, but I don’t think it all congeals into an appealing whole. It’s a sloppy, clunky shipwreck in a sea of nursery and bubble-bathtub softness. So why did I take the time to write about Toys if I hate it so much? Well, I guess I don’t hate it. I admire what was trying to happen and I really do love the art design and a few of the set gags. I guess I don’t know why I wrote about it. Something about Toys, although it is largely a forgettable experience, sticks in the back of my mind, so much that we had to watch it again years later just to see if it was real. Toys really is not a good movie and I don’t know how pleased Levinson was with the final product, but it’s nowhere near as weird-bad as Super Mario Bros. (1993) which might even be weirder in addition to being worse.

Ultimately it’s bad, but it’s uniqueness makes it sort of something special. At the end of the day maybe we can at least say Toys was weirder than Howard the Duck (1986), but maybe just as hard to watch. So go watch it. What do I care.

More Animated Movies You Didn’t See

Awhile back I wrote about the animated movies you didn’t see I suggested you check out Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (1973), Dave Borthwick’s The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993), Michel Ocleot’s Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998), and Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues (2008)—all absolutely wonderful films. You may notice I write a lot about animated movies. Animation is near and dear to my heart and when it sneaks up and surprises me it is all the more precious. Today I have four more suggestions of animated films you might have missed and I strongly encourage you to check them out, and they are Ralph Bakshi’s controversial Coonskin (1975), Marcell Jankovic’s psychedelic Son of the White Mare (1981), John Korty’s screwy Twice Upon a Time (1983), and Will Vinton’s peculiar exploration into The Adventures of Mark Twain (1986). . . Get ready. Things are about to get weird.

Ralph Bakshi (Heavy Traffic) is like an X-rated Don Bluth (The Secret of NIMH). Both are ambitious little animation rebels that seem to have trouble finding mainstream success and consistency, yet you gotta applaud their work even when they miss. Bakshi is the man responsible for strange efforts like Wizards (rather dated), Fire and Ice (an unfortunate misfire that tries to replicate the artwork of Frank Frazetta in fully animated environments), Fritz the Cat (based on the comic by Robert Crumb who apparently hated the film), the animated Lord of the Rings (not bad), American Pop (a mess, but I liked it), and Cool World (there’s a lot going on in this one, but it’s such a shambles let’s just move on). I have to set the stage for Coonskin because only Bakshi could pull it off…or even try. He’s always done things a little differently and he’s never shied away from, shall we say, intensity. Coonskin (aka Street Fight aka Bustin’ Out aka Harlem Nights aka Coonskin No More) is the story of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear as you have never seen them before.* Scatman Crothers (The Shining, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) sets the mood with a catchy little number called “Ah’m a Nigger Man”  (already you can see the controversy, but the song is really great and a biting jab at white ignorance and racism). As some folks in the live action world prepare for a daring jailbreak, a wise old timer (Crothers) tells the cartoon story of three animal folk heroes who take on racist cops, the Italian mafia, bad religion, and black corruption in Harlem.

The film is ugly, abrasive, gritty and excessively violent and sexual, but there’s a strange, grotesque satirical allure to it all. Something this provocative clearly had every moment meticulously planned, and its gross stereotypes might be more of a condemnation of the audience who might have thought all these horrible things all along. It’s purposely steeped in blaxploitation to force you to consider the images you are seeing. This movie is what would have happened if Robert Crumb and John Kricfalusi (Ren & Stimpy) did Schoolhouse Rock. For all its raucous abandon, there is a painful fatalism underneath. The scenes where a poor black drifter tries to woo a buxom, nude, and manipulative female representation of America are funny, but shocking when you consider the commentary behind it. Coonskin is very much a product of its time (and Bakshi’s imagination) and should offend everyone; black, white, women, gay, religious, etc. It’s a gross assault on all things right and that is entirely the point that Al Sharpton missed (he was a leader in the fight to stop this movie). It’s not racist. It’s an honest American race tragedy (but perhaps with a glimmer of hope) and you can unpack that more after you see it. It also stars Barry White, Philip Thomas, Charles Gordone, and Al Lewis (The Munsters).

The next film comes from Hungary and is sure to alienate everyone at the party—unless they are hugely into Hungarian folklore and/or on magic mushrooms. Marcell Jankovic’s Son of the White Mare cured me from being wary of Hungarian cartoons (I had a bad experience with The District). It starts as a delirious mélange of colors and shapes until after about ten minutes we figure out we’ve been watching a horse give birth to human babies the whole time. She has two sons who leave, but the third wants to be able to throw trees around so he listens to the old weird guy he meets in the forest (who might be God?) and suckles at his horse-mother’s teat for several decades to grow strong. When he is fully grown and his mother is dry and dying he becomes Tree-Shaker and goes on a journey to restore the three kingdoms (and save their princesses) from the wicked rule of the three evil dragons. Along the way he picks up his fair-weather brothers, Stone-Crumbler and Iron-Kneader, and a mischievous demon who only the superhuman Tree-Shaker can outsmart. When his brothers chicken out at the gates Tree-Shaker realizes he must battle the dragons by himself. One dragon is a three-headed rock golem-type creature. The next is a seven headed battle tank and the final dragon is a twelve-headed computerized city monster. Tree-Shaker manages many other folk hero obstacles like being stuck in the under world, killing a snake, and even feeding his own legs to a griffin.

The story is very mythic and ancient feeling, but the lively, surreal animations are wonderfully superb. Even if you don’t get all the folklore stuff, the madness of the vibrantly moving illustrations will keep your attention (it almost reminded me of Yellow Submarine in a strange way). This sort of imaginative, freedom-embracing approach is what animation is all about. Seriously, lines go everywhere and colors collapse into one another like crazy! Watch Son of the White Mare and educate yourself on Hungarian folktales and have one heck of a trip. It’s like the works of Homer as realized by Vince Collins.

Ya’ll know who George Lucas is? Sure, he’s the guy who made Star Wars…and produced Howard the Duck. Speaking of Howard the Duck, as awful as that film was, it reveals a daring side to Mr. Lucas. He would give money to those crazy ideas from time to time, and I’m sure glad he did here. Such is the case for the criminally snubbed George Lucas produced film Twice Upon a Time, directed by John Korty. This is a wonderful comic tale with zero substance. It’s great. Written in almost nonstop puns and clever banter (Yellow Submarine again?) and animated in a technique called “Lumage,” a sort of plastic backlit stop-motion animation, Twice Upon a Time is the story of how the black-and-white live-action Rushers of Din were almost bombarded with nightmares from the Murkworks, run by the odious Synonamess Botch, until some unlikely heroes emerged out of sunny Frivoli’s dreamland. The nightmare vultures snatch up all the Fig Men of Frivoli and trick the good-hearted Ralph the All-Purpose Animal and his mute companion, Mum, into stealing the spring to stop time in Din. Then Synonamess Botch plants nightmare bombs all over Din, planning to set them off all at once. Amidst the chaos Flora Fauna studies to be an actress, the Fairy Godmother blows up a telephone pole, Rod Rescueman tries to rescue something, Scuzzbopper toils away at the Great Amurkian Novel, a robot gorilla with a television for a face does stuff, etc. Overwhelmed yet? Don’t be. Every inch of this movie is designed to be delightful fluff.

It’s a highly imaginative and breezy little film with clever dialogue and a sense of flippant mayhem that could only be birthed on a Saturday morning eating “Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs” (Calvin & Hobbes anyone?). You’ll laugh and thrill as Ralph, Mum, Rod, and the whole gang do battle with the cantankerous Synonamess Botch and restore the spring to Din. The animation is strange and fascinating and the humor is adult and hilarious while being kid-friendly (depending on which dub of the movie you get, I’ve seen both and I actually think the one without the swearing is a lot better). It’s a whimsical delight that has plenty of action, grating 80s songs, and the soothing tempo of Lorenzo Music’s voice. Lorenzo Music plays the main protagonist, Ralph the All-Purpose Animal, but you probably recognize this sleepy timbre from the Garfield animated series. Since the film makes no pretense of even pretending to be important it frees itself from all moral and plot confines and soars to new heights of comic frivolity and triviality. It’s a magnificent trifle that is thoroughly enjoyable.

Will Vinton is an animation legend most famous for his work with the iconic “California Raisins” commercials from the 80s. He has done many great short films (Martin the Cobbler) and TV specials (A Claymation Christmas Celebration), but his interpretation of the great American literary legend, Mark Twain, is the reason we’re here today. If you’ve ever wondered what was that weird youtube clip of a claymation Satan creating a tiny civilization in space and then indifferently murdering them, then I am here to tell you. That’s a scene from Vinton’s The Adventures of Mark Twain! Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Becky Thatcher stowaway on a bizarrely constructed airship piloted by an aging Mark Twain—and secretly co-piloted by Twain’s dark side. James Whitmore (Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Shawshank Redemption) provides the voice of Twain as the three stowaways learn about other great Twain tales like “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven,” “The Mysterious Stranger,” and others. Twain was a complicated man, and the film portrays this by way of a sort of literal manifestation of bipolar disorder—there is a light Twain who is happy and eager to share a story and then there is a dark Twain who is joyless and fatalistic. Sawyer and the other kids soon learn that Mark Twain is leaving earth in an airship to make a suicide voyage into Halley’s Comet—echoing the real Twain’s words, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year [1910], and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet.” Despite the whimsy, languid pace, bright colors, and pleasing shapes there is a dark sense of urgency throughout. Vinton does not give us Mark Twain’s works so much as he gives us Twain himself. The film does a grand job of displaying Twain’s own sense of humor, melancholy, imagination, and wisdom. Vinton’s designs may look childish, but they are gloriously detailed and impressive. These are not George Pal Puppetoons, these are living balls of clay in constant motion and evolution and it is a pleasure behold. I personally love the design of the airship.

Live-action plus animation, traditional cel-animation with added trippiness, “Lumage,” and smooth, fluid claymation; all with very unique and distinctive styles. It’s a shame these films are not more readily available as I enjoyed them all very much and would encourage you to seek them out and enjoy them for yourself. Whether it’s gritty, obscene Coonskin, the mythically hallucinatory Son of the White Mare, the proactively weightless Twice Upon a Time, or the strange take on a literary legend in The Adventures of Mark Twain I hope one of these creative films (if not all) finds its way to your TV screen. The weirdness is out there.

*Check out my review for Song of the South.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” April 22, 2011

The Post Apocalyptic Movies You Didn’t See…Way Beyond the Thunderdome

Deserts and desperation. From Mad Max (1979) to Children of Men (2006) we sure do love speculating about what the world might look like after a nuclear holocaust. The post-apocalyptic sub-genre of the dystopian movie is something of a Hollywood staple nowadays (The Road, Book of Eli). There have been many a fine example of what a story can do with a clean slate. After the disaster you can make your own rules…unfortunately a lot of post-apocalyptic flicks don’t seem to realize that the possibilities of what a post-apocalyptic world can be are endless. You can go all out weird-bad bonkers like John Boorman’s misguided wtf Zardoz (1974) with Sean Connery, or you can go total glittery-cape-wearing zombie-war like in the Charlton Heston classic The Omega Man (1971). Most of the films mentioned in this paragraph are fairly well-known or popular (ok, Zardoz is a little out there), but I’d like to focus on a few post-apocalyptic movies you probably didn’t see. Both good and bad these films celebrate the endless possibilities of life after the bomb drops.

Come travel back in time with me as we explore the future.

When I hear a title like Hell Comes to Frogtown (1987) a little twinge of excitement tickles my spine. I watched this movie knowing it was going to be bad. It did not disappoint. Hell Comes to Frogtown stars wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper (They Live) as Sam Hell, one of the last remaining fertile males in the not too distant future. Hell is captured and his netherbits are locked up by the provisional government so that he can go on a mission—wait for it, wait for it—to impregnate all the fertile females that are held hostage in Frogtown. So what is Frogtown? Frogtown is the steam-filled factory-like settlement inhabited by mutant frog people. Ribbit. If this movie sounds a little campy and chauvinistic, it’s only because it is. This movie can’t go ten minutes without women disrobing themselves. Frogtown has everything you’d expect from a campy eighties sci-fi action comedy. You got your butch, cigar-chomping, short-hair chick who’s always stroking a big gun (Cec Verrell). Then there’s the “nerdy” chick with the stick up her butt who lets her hair down and removes her gigantic owl glasses (and several articles of clothing) to reveal she’s secretly super hot (Sandahl Bergman). There’s your regular Joe protagonist (Piper) who just wants to get the blasted electrocution diaper off his junk. Finally there are some truly silly people in big frog puppet suits. The film is ugly and terrible…just the way I like it sometimes. If nothing else, it’s better than Super Mario Bros.

The eighties had some hits, but man, when you find its forgotten misses. Don’t hate this one because it’s Canadian. Hate it because it sucks. The mercifully short Rock & Rule (1983) is just as yucky as anything to come out of the eighties. In the distant future some mutant rodent people have formed a mediocre rock band. The band is made up of the obnoxious tool of a guitarist, the loveable but paunchy intellectual keyboardist, the goofy and uber-annoying drummer, and the kind and soulful hot girl. Everything is going nowhere for these guys until an evil all-powerful rocker named Mok needs to use the girl’s voice to unleash a demon out of hell for some reason. I found it interesting that all of the male characters look rather gross or strange but with the girl they really try to minimize her rodent features and sexualize her. Anthros will love it. The story is stupid, the characters are grating, the colors are oppressive and dim, and there’s really nothing to care about in this unpleasant fantasy adventure, but the animation is actually really, really good. I was genuinely impressed by the animation in this dumb movie. The same studio animated Eek! The Cat and The Adventures of Tintin cartoons. Most of the songs are pretty forgettable, but there’s a few decent ones. The songs are performed by (get this) Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Cheap Trick, Debbie Harry, and Earth, Wind, & Fire, so there’s that. All in all something this bad and strange should not be forgotten…because that means I have to find it.

The bad is now behind us. Now we move into the realm of the good ol’ off-the-wall post-apocalyptic movies.

A Boy and His Dog (1975) is the touching tale of the undying bond between man and man’s best friend. Kind of. In the distant future (post-apocalyptic, of course) Vic (Don Johnson) and his telepathic dog Blood (voiced by Tim McIntire) search for food and females. The landscape is reminiscent of Hell Comes to Frogtown, but it was actually Mad Max who was inspired first. A Boy and His Dog was directed by L.Q. Jones (the old, blonde, mustachioed guy in The Mask of Zorro) and is appropriately taglined as “a rather kinky tale of survival.” The protagonist, Vic, is not only a bit of an immature, reckless jerk, but he’s also a bit of a rapist too. The dog is ten times smarter than Vic is, which really makes you consider a dog’s steadfast loyalty in a whole new light. When Vic meets Quilla June Holmes (Susanne Benton) he is convinced he must see the strange, enigmatic underground city. If everyone above ground is wild and dangerous and resources are scarce then maybe it’s time to go subterranean. The problem is that Blood is wounded and so he elects to wait for Vic to return up top. Once underground Vic discovers a whole populated world of people wearing clown makeup (and the world is run by Jason Robards!!!). He then learns that they need his seed to repopulate (Frogtown! Confound you!). Initially the idea appeals to the perpetually randy Vic, but when they take all the fun out of it and keep him prisoner that’s when things get serious. I would love to tell you more, but I can’t ruin it for you. It’s a pretty odd film that gets away with a lot of its shenanigans by not taking itself too seriously. Oh, and the ending is definitely one for the books.

Lastly, and my personal favorite on this list, is the surreal British comedy The Bed-Sitting Room (1969). The film takes place in a desolate British wasteland full of oddball characters trying to carry on with their daily lives. These characters are played by many familiar English personalities such as Michael Hordern (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold), Sir Ralph Richardson (Time Bandits), Dudley Moore (Arthur), Peter Cook (Bedazzled), Roy Kinnear (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), Rita Tushingham (Doctor Zhivago), Marty Feldman (Young Frankenstein), Harry Secombe (The Goon Show), and more! It was based on Spike Milligan’s play (he also stars in the film alongside everyone else) and it was directed by Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, The Three Musketeers, Superman II). The film really operates more as a series of somewhat connected interludes and non-sequiturs, all as bafflingly surreal and morbidly funny as all get out. It almost feels like what would happen if Terry Gilliam and Alejandro Jodorowsky did a movie together. It has that absurd—almost Monty Python flavored—satire, but with the stark desperation and dreamlike transmogrifications that imply an even more cynically surreal hand at work. It’s a marvelous commentary on society and if you can get into people turning into furniture then this just might be the film for you. I absolutely loved its darkly warped wit. This is Richard Lester untethered and the cast is superb. And even weirder than Lester’s How I Won the War.

Post-apocalyptic movies have remained popular through the years and it’s no wonder. You can get really imaginative with them. I picked these films not only because they are exceptionally unusual and maybe less well known, but also because they employ a unique and welcome twist to the genre: a sense of humor. Hell Comes to Frogtown and Rock and Rule may be rather heinous, but they only mean to have fun and provide a strange escape. A Boy and His Dog and The Bed-Sitting Room are inventive and edgy, but it is their humorous spirit that defines them and makes them special. Humor affords them special privileges. Humor can say and do things drama cannot, and vice versa, but with so many dour and serious post-apocalyptic films out there, why not take a chance on one of these weird babies? If you like post-apocalyptic movies you might enjoy checking out these peculiar specimens…but you already know which ones I’d recommend first.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” June 13, 2011

The 60s Happened in the 40s

Dada? Surrealism? Avant-garde? Cinematic abstraction? Wanton pretentiosity?

Experimental film is at least as old as film itself. All of the first films were, by their very nature, “experimental.” People were experimenting with what the medium could do. Once a reasonable grasp on that was attained, experimental film came to mean something else. An experimental film came to mean a movie that used the medium of motion picture but as a vehicle to explore art and things other than straightforward narrative. It was pleasing coincidence that the anarchic Dada movement of art hit its peak just as film was becoming a serious art form itself.

Germaine Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928), considered one of the first surreal experimental movies, was a dreamlike spectacle about a lustful priest’s fantasies. Then the infamous Un Chien Andalou (1929), helmed by Spanish surrealists Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, pushed the boundaries of symbolism. The famous painter, Dalí (The Persistence of Time, The Temtation of St. Anthony, The Great Masturbator, etc.), and the developing filmmaker, Buñuel (The Exterminating Angel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty, etc.), made what is considered a masterpiece of surreal film Dadaism with Un Chien Andalou. What makes it so great is that despite its shocking  and bizarre imagery, there is nothing tying the ideas, visions, characters, or events together. It is actually just madness and doesn’t necessarily mean anything at all. Both artists would explore this further in other works and they would team up again for the film L’Age d’Or (1930).

Filmmakers like Maya Deren (Meshes of the Afternoon), Kenneth Anger (Eaux D’Artifice), Jean Cocteau (Testament of Orpheus), Alejandro Jodorwosky (The Holy Mountain), Mamoru Oshii (Angel’s Egg), The Brothers Quay (Piano Tuner of Earthquakes), Matthew Barney (Cremaster Cycle), David Lynch (Eraserhead), and many others like to dazzle and perplex us with dream imagery that does not always seem to make much sense. I confess that I do not always understand or appreciate modern art, but I do recognize that sometimes art is just ahead of its time.

One of the most enjoyably “ahead of its time” experimental movies I have had the pleasure of watching is Hans Richter’s Dreams That Money Can Buy (1947). Dreams That Money Can Buy is an anthology of surreal dream sequences wrapped up in a loose story about a man who can make people experience dreams. He runs his apartment like an office and accepts walk-in clients who want to experience something truly unique. The film is narrated by the main character, Joe (Jack Bittner). There is no spoken dialogue. Makes the onscreen conversing feel telepathic in a way. Each dream sequence was developed and directed by a different surreal artist. Max Ernst shows us aching desires in a strange, foliage and fog enshrouded bedchamber. Fernand Léger, puts on a glorious mannequin pageant show. We see Ruth, roses, and revolvers at a bizarre funeral from the mind of Man Ray. Marcel Duchamp spins a hypnotic trance of spiraling discs. Alexander Calder tames a wire toy circus and sets a ballet of mobiles dancing. Hans Richter orchestrated the whole thing and directed the final sequence in which Joe turns blue and familiar things get weird and burst into flames. If some of the artist’s names sound unfamiliar I guarantee you have at least seen some of their famous works in art books.

I really enjoyed this movie quite a bit and the visuals alone are not all that this colorful film have going for it. If the imagery is wild, kooky, and ahead of its time, wait until you hear the music. Great innovative composers each worked on a different dream. Experimental in sight and sound! Composers Paul Bowles, Josh White, Darius Milhaud, John Cage, David Diamond, and Louis Applebaum each collaborated with the visual artists to create a truly spellbinding feature. I liked the pictures (Léger, Duchamp, and Calder’s segments in particular), but I absolutely loved the music. It was so unlike anything I had heard in movies from this era. Sounds like this wouldn’t integrate themselves into film until the 1960s and yet Dreams That Money Can Buy was made in 1947. Richter really made sure all aspects of production were headed by great artists who were ahead of their time.

The film also has a sharp and clever sense of humor. It winks almost as much as a “Looney Tunes” cartoon. Dreams That Money Can Buy is a dazzling achievement and one that I will definitely be watching again. I can’t say you will like it as much as I did, but it is definitely a fascinating artifact worthy of inspection. It’s neat to see how each visual artist leaves their unmistakable marks on their filmed segments. Of course, Calder would use mobiles! Rather than deconstruct this film’s possible meanings, I’m just going to have to tell you to see it for yourself and become your own dream interpreter. I’m also going to cough and say that an American DVD distributor needs to pick this one up.

Enjoy. This is excellent vintage oddity.

picture references:

http://www.dangerousminds.net/comments/dreams_money_can_buy_surrealist_feature_film_from_1947/

http://unbearablevision.tumblr.com/post/7144442902/lesdiaboliques-dreams-that-money-can-buy-1947

http://artforum.com/video/mode=large&id=20462

Alice in Svankmajerland

I once had a double-feature with this movie and The Happiness of the Katakuris. It was epic, I tell you.

Curiouser and curiouser!

As some held their breath in eager anticipation to see what director Tim Burton (Batman, Ed Wood) would do to Lewis Carroll’s much-celebrated—and oft times committed to celluloid—classic novel, I recalled an earlier adaptation: Jan Svankmajer’s  Alice (aka Neco z Alenky) (1988). If you are like me and hated the Burton incarnation then maybe you should check this one out.

Don't be scared.

Here’s Alice…

I am a huge fan of Lewis Carroll’s work and both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1872) and am always excited to see another artist’s take on the strange tale. The earliest film adaptation I’ve seen was Cecil Hepworth’s Alice in Wonderland which was made in 1903. It’s a charming short film with some interesting effects. The most famous version is probably Walt Disney’s 1951 animated classic. The Disney cartoon is full of wonderful colors and imaginative surprises and deserves its slot next to Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), Lady and the Tramp (1955), and Sleeping Beauty (1959) as some of Disney’s finest animated achievements (those are my personal favorites anyway). Lewis Carroll’s book has been filmed so many times and has employed the aid of such talents as Peter Sellers, W. C. Fields, Kate Beckinsale, Gene Wilder, Johnny Depp, and even once scored by Ravi Shankar, but perhaps the most innovative and fascinating take on this treasured story is from the soil and pipe-filled mind of surreal Czech animator, Jan Svankmajer (Faust, Conspirators of PleasureLittle Otik, and Lunacy).

What are you looking at?

What are you looking at?

As a fan and follower of Mr. Svankmajer and a great admirer of his aforementioned features and short subject works (The Ossuary, Dimensions of Dialogue, Down to the Cellar, Et Cetera, etc.), I can honestly say that Alice (1988) is my favorite of his. Despite the stylistic liberties the jarring and idiosyncratic director takes, Svankmajer stays surprisingly true to the spirit and the plot (or plotlessness) of Carroll’s book—it does lack the poetry and clever wordplay, but Svankmajer employs his own unique brand of humor and wit. Those of you familiar with the story of Alice and her adventures will recall it all began when Alice followed a little white rabbit down a tunnel where she became suddenly immersed in a world of nonsense. By combining live action (mostly the part of Alice played by Kristyna Kohoutova) and brain-bending stop-motion, Svankmajer fashions a dark, near-nightmarish world fashioned from earth, termite-ridden wood, peeling paint, drafty basements, sawdust, animal skeletons, rotting meat and vegetables (all his favorite obsessions).

alice cookies

Magic cookies!

The White Rabbit is a taxidermy beast with bug-eyes, a velvet hat and coat, and a huge rip in his chest that bleeds wood chips and sawdust (so he fastens himself shut with a safety pin, licks clean his pocket watch, and scurries off hastily). Alice pursues the White Rabbit across a barren field of plowed dirt where she crawls into a writing desk and emerges in a dank, winding basement. She tumbles through the floor, takes a dark, ramshackle elevator passing skulls and jars of preserved foods. Alice grows big and small in a tiny, dirty room while she sobs about not being able to get into the beautiful garden on the other side of the door. Alice is harassed by an army of animals sculpted from the mismatched bones and bits of strange creatures, crockery, and other taxidermy critters. She frequently becomes a toy doll during the course of her journey as well. Alice enters a room full of tube socks burrowing through the wooden floors whilst she converses with a denture-wearing “Caterpillar.” She participates in a hallucinatory tea party with the wind-up March Hare and wooden, obsessive-compulsive Mad Hatter. She accepts the Fish Footman’s invitation and is placed on trial before the Queen of Hearts where a most nonsensical proceeding follows.

Bwahahahaha!

Bwahahahaha!

There is no music and almost no dialogue—every spoken word is uttered by Alice herself and the camera cuts away to an extreme closeup of Alice’s mouth reciting “said the white rabbit/caterpillar/mad hatter, etc.”

Did I molt again?

Did I molt again?

Svankmajer does little to alter the story, but his visuals are not exactly inspired by Sir John Tenniel. The oneiric atmosphere is startling and disturbing. It’s a film you can almost taste and feel underneath your fingernails. Watching Alice is like watching a tapeworm choke out a mouse dressed as the pope, it’s disgusting but at the same time immensely unique and sort of funny. Svankmajer is a master of textures (and none of them smooth or soft). He likes the dirt and pine needles strewn about the floor and the coming of the maggots when the meat turns rancid. These are fascinating subjects that he explores in many of his works. Svankmajer seems to like to give every minuscule object a history and past. Every nick in the chair, every bit of mold in the drain, every stain on the wall, or gnawed bit of turnip tells a story and makes the atmosphere alive and dense in an almost too vivid and unsettling way. He is a filmmaker you will either love or hate. His visuals are potent. His comedy is dark and strange. His sound effects are abrasive and tinny. And his take on Alice might be the most original.

"Time's fun when you're having flies." ---Kermit the Frog

“Time’s fun when you’re having flies.” —Kermit the Frog

If you don’t like uncooked steaks scuttling across a shelf or for bread to sprout nails when you try to bite it or if the thought of a mouse pounding spikes into your head and building a fire in your hair bothers you, then perhaps this movie is not for you. If you don’t like the taste of sawdust, ink, or fruit jams filled with tacks then maybe you should watch something else. If dark, enclosed, cold spaces full of bony creatures lurking in the corners aren’t your cup of tea then I suggest you do something else with your time. HOWEVER, if you are bold and adventurous and willing to experience a different type of filmmaking then I hesitate not to recommend this brilliantly bent masterpiece of the surreal. For tickets to live in the wet and warped mind of Jan Svankmajer for an hour and a half, find a copy of Alice (1988). You’ll never forget where he takes you. Consider yourself warned. Now go with my blessing.

Keep your temper.

Keep your temper.

And for godsakes, skip the Burton one.

alice test gif

SHIRT?

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” February 16, 2010.

The Lost lobmyS

luchador prepares

unaware of PJ Man

molesting angels.

There. I attempted haiku. It may not be a good one, but no shame in trying.

Symbol (2009) is 2001: a Space Odyssey on magic pills.

where am I?

As I sit down and make ready to adequately report my findings in this singularly unique film I am confounded by a glaring roadblock. How can I describe this film without spoiling its many surprises?

Indeed, the whole film is one enigmatic surprise after another that only escalates in seemingly reckless absurdity until its inevitable point of conclusive befuddlement. It feels like a lost chapter of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It feels like a warped episode of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. It feels…unmistakably Japanese—despite the Mexican luchador subplot.

symbol dogHitoshi Matsumoto (Big Man Japan) directs, writes, and stars as a frustrated man in pajamas. This man wakes up in an empty white room with no doors and no windows. Also the walls are speckled with the protruding genitalia of thousands of mirthful cherubim.

A touch bewildered, the man experiments with these putty phalluses to discern their nature and to perhaps ascertain how he may exit this surreal riddle. When fomented via a light pressure from the index finger, the squishy penises burp angelical melodic notes of varying pitch and then the walls spew forth random objects. One phallus will produce a bonsai tree while another will produce bottled soy sauce or a scampering Zulu tribesman. The man tests different suggestive protuberances, all with equally bizarre and random results.

Meanwhile! …in Mexico, a portly underdog luchador gets a ride in a battered pickup truck. The driver: a chain-smoking nun with sunglasses…who is also his daughter. Sporadically the movie will return to the plot of the lucha libre fighter, Escargot Man, and his young son. But it is rarely accompanied by orienting information provided concerning these characters or how they might coincide with the outlying storyline of the man in the room upholstered in baby wang.

This is as far as I can lead you without spoiling the film for you. If you would care to read on you are most welcome, but be warned that it will undercut much of the surprise this film has, and surprise is one of this film’s greatest assets. If you want Symbol to stay pure, unsquelched spontaneity so you can watch it one day with an empty head then only read the next two paragraphs. Then stop.

I will say this: I really enjoyed the film quite a lot. It was alienating and didn’t make sense. My cup of tea. It was random and off the wall (literally) and I actually laughed out loud a lot during the movie. There is a visual and conceptual comic nonsense that I found smart, unique, and very funny. It’s a twisted sort of symbolism to be sure, but I would not hesitate to recommend it to anybody. For the people predisposed to love this sort of cultural oddity, I say pursue it. For those predisposed to despise films of this ilk, watch it anyway so the rest of us can watch your face contort in disgust. Where I found  Big Man Japan only somewhat humorous as an intermittently enjoyable take on Japan’s kooky history with big monsters and big heroes, Symbol is much more polished and far more consistently clever and amusing. Big Man Japan was alright, but Symbol simply must be watched. The special effects (which are purely unique in both their style and execution) are also really great.

I went into this film with only as much as the vague trailer permitted me to know (which wasn’t much). Thirty minutes in I was still lost. An hour in I was hopeless to find any sense or reason in this jangled, yet enjoyable, Japanese novelty. In the homestretch, certain things, I admit, were illuminated, but they raised many new questions and these new questions were of a much heavier weight.

Obligatory SPOILER ALERT! Seriously. There are spoilers ahead. I could ruin the whole film for you. I’m in just the sort of strange mood where I just might do it too. And I hate spoilers. I blame the moon right now. I saw it driving back from Long Beach this evening. It hung low and orange in the polluted murk of what Southern Californians dub “the sky” and there were eerie streaks from dark, stretched clouds slicing into its corners like fork scrapes out of a Halloween cupcake. It was perfect werewolf weather, I tell you.

symbol1

Symbol starts out as an endurance test for how much strange the protagonist (and the audience) can take. It transmogrifies into a fantastically weird journey of spiritual transcendence. The man uses the random objects to solve the puzzle and escape this incessantly circumcised room…only to get trapped in a sort of limbo space before he becomes the captive of yet another room, this time impossibly larger, darker, and the members more mature. At the first, I suspected him to be the subject of some peculiar alien science experiment, but things are far more interesting than that. Symbol, despite its insufferable whimsy, is really a unique theological and philosophical interpretation on why anything is anything. By the end of the film you will still have many questions, but you will definitely feel like you went somewhere and that all of the time and work was well worth it.

In the new room the adult angel penises exact invisible changes. Invisible, that is, to our main protagonist, but they produce shocking effects in the real world. The luchador, Escargot Man, emerges the victor due to a freak involuntary mutation (easily one of the weirdest jokes in movie history). A KISS knockoff rocker gets a spontaneous dose of combustible breath. An elephant trips as he jogs across the Serengeti. Apparently everything in the world happens because of a man fondling heavenly scrota. Makes ya think.

Soon the man has mastered the schlongs and propels himself eternally upward on what (from a safe distance) might appear to be a great rock wall. With each new John Thomas touched, new and increasingly profound things happen all over the world. It becomes an orgiastic ballet of climbing, fondling, and sparking grandeur. Ultimately this leads to a room with an embossed map of the world and the ultimate wall Willie. Is the Japanese gentleman in the polka-dot pajamas a god? Are there other rooms like this? Is he the only one? Who set up the experiment to make this man a god? What does all of this mean? Were we really just investing all that time with Escargot Man and his family for that one weird joke? I don’t know much, but the answer to the last question is yes and the payoff was totally worth it.

In a time where there seems to be a lack of originality in the world of film (especially comedy), it’s nice to know we still have people like Hitoshi Matsumoto around. He may cater to a specific taste, but God help me if I don’t feel catered to.  Sometimes philosophy, art, theology, and the realm of Mexican wrestling need a healthy dose of humor. I’m still not entirely sure what it all was supposed to mean, but I laughed and had fun and I would definitely see it again…now when in that pesky US release coming?!

symbol2

Even if you hate every second of Matsumoto’s lunacy you will have to admit that you will never see a film like this again.

picture references:

http://loveandpop.com/bulletsnbabesdvd.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=5769

http://icelandchronicles.com/2010/10/riff-day-9-symbol-by-hitoshi-matsumoto/

http://kino-real.blogspot.com/2010_11_01_archive.html