Altered States

December 27, 2011

Paddy Chayefsky had no business being angry about the treatment given to his screenplay for the movie Altered States directed by Ken Russell in 1980.  Reportedly, he was angry about the way his beautifully crafted dialog was treated.  Here’s a rant by whiz kid scientist Jessup (William Hurt) delivered while he’s raging drunk:

“What dignifies the Yogic practices is that the belief system itself is not truly religious. There is no Buddhist God per se. It is the Self, the individual Mind, that contains immortality and ultimate truth.”

Not far from the truth, but an absurd piece of dialog, in context.  All the characters speak in this stilted, intellectual way, which, along with the deadpan treatment of the action, gives the film a comic-ironic dimension.  Apparently, Paddy took the ideas dead seriously, but this story is ridiculous, and what redeems the film is Russell’s usual over-the-top imagery, in this case perfectly in sync with the psychedelic freakout ethos of this post 60s romp that seems trapped in Strawberry Fields.  Religious, mythic, erotic, pop-cultural, oh that Ken, he’s something else!

In this series of images from Jessup’s mushroom induced hallucinations with rural Mexican Indians, Russell recreates the craziness of pharmaceutical mirages and seems to be paying homage to that milestone of surrealism, An Andalusian Dog.

That Andalusian Dog

 

 

 

Man meets his inner lizard.

 

Pagan Goddess

Adoration

…………………  …………..

 

In stone, for eternity.

As I said, the plot and the ideas driving it are laughable:  it includes an extended interlude in which Jessup regresses, physically, to a primitive hominoid state, nearly kills some security guards, and finds peace only after breaking into a zoo and devouring a sheep raw.  I wanted nothing but to survive that night, to eat, to sleep.  Italo Calvino treats the same ideas, the bliss of pre-cultural consciousness, in his wry and funny piece, Interview with a Neanderthal Man, but, as I said, the screenplay of this film plays it straight.

During Jessup’s final trip, there are some nice images, and more homages to films, I think:

Could be Kiss Me Deadly.  What’s in the damn box?

Bill Gates freaking out on Windows?  Where did this primordial goo come from?  And who’s going to mop it up?

This definitely recalls 2001:  A Space Odyssey.

The Love Goddess saves the day!


Old Favorite

October 3, 2011

I saw An Andalusian Dog when I was sixteen, in a public library of all places.  I wonder if any librarian would dare screen it today!  Now I can see it on Netflix whenever I want to, and I watched it last night.  A wonderful thing about this 1929 milestone of cinema and surrealism is that it simply is as it appears – weird.  Luis Bunuel used to make jokes about the deep interpretations that critics would apply to his montages and visual non sequitursI just liked how it looked, he would say.

Check out this comic by Max, Bardin, The Superrealist for a wild ride inspired in part by Dali, Bunuel, and their Andalusian Dog.


Dalí and Me

September 1, 2011

When I was in high school, I loved Salvador Dalí.  I knew all his paintings, read his biography, his novel, and his autobiography (The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí.)  I vividly recall the first time I saw one of his pictures:  it was in fourth grade, and I opened a book that had his premonition of the civil war.  I thought it was the weirdest, most grotesque thing I had ever seen.

He did a lot of junk, but at his best, he was very good.  I always wished I could have attended the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme and seen Rainy Taxi, with the bedraggled mannequin in the back seat, water cascading through the roof, and snails crawling over her limbs.  Seeing the car in the lobby of the Figueras Theatro Salvador Dalí was a thrill.  I still get a kick out of much of his work.  There’s no surrealist like him.  The ancient church across the street from the theater is a beautiful complement to his craziness, and one he surely appreciated.


Surreal Times

June 15, 2011

Always happy to see surrealism plastered across the front page of mainstream media!  Whoddathunkit?  The debut of Un Chien Andalou was greeted with a near riot.  Luis Bunuel is laughing…


Death in the Garden

July 2, 2010

Death in the Garden is a film from 1956 by Luis Bunuel.    The plot is one we have seen many times in cinema:  an unlikely group  of characters is forced to work together in order to survive in hostile circumstances, outside of the boundaries of civilization, and in the process, their personalities and the old class distinctions begin to disintegrate.  Nothing at all surprising here, and the film is, in fact, rather straightforward for those expecting a wild dash of surrealism, but that is not to say it’s boring.  No, it was a wonderful, surprising, and sometimes poignant movie.  It’s also in stunning 1950s color.

Our group comprises a rather uptight priest, a brash prostitute used to running her own show, an elderly miner, her former customer, who has decided to marry her and take her back home to France with him, the miner’s daughter, a pretty young woman who is mute, and a handsome adventurer running from the law.  They all must flee their one-horse town in the South American wilderness when the high-handed actions of the corrupt local military man provoke an armed uprising.  The miner and adventurer are falsely accused of crimes, the whore is implicated with the miner, and the priest…at first he is taken against his will, but after that, he’s a marked man too.

With the setting of the Amazonian jungle, it’s clear that The Garden refers to Eden.  The philosophical and religious themes are piled on one after another, but with delicious irony and humor – you could ignore them if you wish and just enjoy a really good adventure yarn.  Now and then, there is a touch that jumps out as distinctly Bunuel, but mostly his presence is felt in the sure direction, the interplay of image and idea, and the portrayal of human culture and norms as just this side of bizarre when seen in the context of nature’s ‘garden.’

I had never seen Simone Signoret as anything but a plump and almost matronly older figure.  Here she is in her early bombshell days:  first meeting with Chark, who is happy to pay for her company; in the jungle with the priest for company, desparately in need of a bath.

Chark kills a snake, and saves them from starvation.  Later, the priest sees the remains swarming with ants.  What would a Bunuel film be without ants?  Was the priest having a vision, or does he really see it?

We see a shot of Paris at night, cars honking, and suddenly it’s an old snapshot of Paris by the light of their jungle campfire, the film suddenly runs down and the audio stops… Reminds me of the film breaking in Bergman’s Personna-which came first?

They are saved when they come upon the wreck of an airplane that was carrying a load of rich vacationers.  Suitcases yield food, drink, fancy clothes, and even jewels!  We see a well dressed woman opening a jewel box, and then are jolted to see it is the young Maria, dressed up, searching through the luggage.  The priest tries to inject a note of law and order, but the lovely young girl is dazzled by the apples, er…jewels.

Djin, the whore, “looks like a real lady,” and makes quite an impression on Chark.  They like each other, but they have to get past the fact that she turned him in to the police for a cut of his cash.  What a bizarre shot this is – high fashion in the wilderness.

Obviously, this idea has a lot of appeal for people today.

The images below say it all:  bare skin, the jungle, raw passion, jewels, civilization stripped away…I saw the advert on a huge billboard driving home from the airport after watching the movie on my flight.  It exploits the jewels on naked-savage-skin opposition for different ends.

She’s tempted, but she’s innocent.  Two of the group survive to escape down the river in a shot that brought to mind the end of The Great Escape, when Charles Bronson floats down a stream to freedom in a small boat.


Black & White Again

January 31, 2010

Comics are in color too, but I prefer the black and white variety.  Thomas Ott makes stories using scratchboard, rectangles of white material covered with India ink.  The artist scratches to reveal the white underneath – once a popular medium for newspapers since it is so easy to photograph and print.  The image above, from Ott’s Tales of Error, is a wonderful example of the way light can be made to shine out of pure black.

Ott’s stories in that book are full of little O’Henry plot twists and Twilight Zone effects, but I felt they fell flat more often than not.  His images, from what I have seen on the Internet, are all similarly focused on the bizarre, the grotesque, and the plain ugly.  His wordless “novel”, The Number, however, is very successful.

In a series of beautifully designed pages, the bizarre story of a prison executioner is unraveled as he is led on to his doom by a series of numbers on a slip of paper dropped by a murderer sent to death on the electric chair.  At first, the numbers, popping up in unpredictable ways in his life, give the man luck, but that’s gotta change!  Here the man, and his new girlfriend, return home after a successful go at the roulette wheel, using the numbers as a can’t-lose system.

The end of the tale isn’t surprising, but the way that the logic is worked out to its predestined conclusion is nice, and the drawings are wonderful.

Another favorite B&W scratchboard example is Peter Kuper’s comic adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The expressionistic style of the stark black and white compositions works well with the story, and it is very true to the spirit and humor of the tale.  (Yes, Kafka is funny! )

Finally, a black and white image done with pen and ink, and reproduced in the newspapers of 1925 – a Sunday panel from Krazy and Ignatz, by George Herriman.  I have dipped into these before because they are celebrated widely as a high point of comics, a great 20th century achievement in art and satire, and a deep poetical statement about…well, lot’s of things.  At first, I was merely amused, but found them a bit tedious.  Now, however, having followed them a bit, as Sunday readers would have, I can say that the more I read, the more seduced I am.  They have a unique atmosphere and sensibility:  surreal, dadaist, poetic, satirical, slapstick, and always composed with sophistication and wit.  One never knows what will come next.

The plot line of the series is quite simple:  Ignatz Mouse lives for nothing but to throw bricks at the head of Krazy Kat.  Officer Pup tries to stop him, but usually fails.  Kat seems to take the endless attacks as a sign of true love, because when a brick hits someone else in one strip, he is very jealous.  I’ve not fathomed all the motives of Ignatz yet.

Sounds like a dada version of a Greek tragedy.  Here the Kat muses on the nature and source of time in a typically arid and otherworldly landscape.

Here Ignatz thinks he’s come upon a source of bricks to last him for a near eternity of head-smashing attacks on Kat.


The Lady Vanishes

October 5, 2009

coming_clean

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) reminded me of Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel in a way.  A group of middle-class people find themselves in a nightmare world bounded by the edge of a room, or railway car, from which they cannot escape.  This one has a happy ending.

The movie gets off to such a slow and corny start, I almost gave up on it.  There’s the rich playgirl, getting ready to return to London to settle down according to Daddy’s wishes, and marry a “check-chasing blueblood.” A pair of stereotypical, cricket-obsessed Brits who keep up a steady idiotic patter, a charming, handsome, and brash musicologist  studying local folksongs, and a slightly batty old English lady governess.  They are all trapped by an avalanche in a remote backwater of some fictional central-European country, waiting for their train connection back to England.

off_to_marriage    not_cricket

Once on the train, the playgirl and the governess become friendly, and when the girl wakes up from a snooze, the old lady is gone.  Simply gone.  Everybody claims to have never seen her!  It becomes a somewhat labored cat-and-mouse game between the girl and the passengers:  she trying to get evidence that the woman did exist; they implying or saying straight out that she’s crazy.  A bit of physical evidence convinces the music man, and they make a team.  It turns out that the passengers are in a conspiracy to abduct and kill the old lady with an elaborate switcheroo involving a fake medical expert, a nun in black high-heeled pumps, and an Italian circus performer.  Then it gets weird.

After the heroes rescue the governess, the bad guys separate the train cars and direct the passengers and the engine onto a small line that runs into the forest.  They stop the train and surround the car with armed men.  After a failed ruse to get the passengers to disembark, they direct a fusillade at the car.  Why are all these people suddenly fighting for their lives in the middle of nowhere, trapped in a rail car, simply because of some old lady? 

A pretty woman with her lover, both fleeing spouses, demands that her man use his gun to defend them.  He thinks it’s all insane – the only sensible thing is to surrender and explain everything.  She grabs his gun and starts firing.  The two Brits rise to the occasion, without visible emotion of course, and turn out to be crack shots.  One grabs the pretty lady’s gun saying, “I’ll put it to better use,” and proceeds to pick off the attackers.  With each shot, the woman starts with fear while he, surveying the situation, calmly remarks, “I’m sure that there’s a rational –bang!- explanation – bang! – for all of this.”  Indeed there is.

use_the_Gun   a_rational_explanation

Happily returned to London, the playgirl abandons her gold-digging fiancé and surrenders to the ill mannered, but charming music man in an embrace that is not what I expect from a Hitchcock film

 k1    k2    k3


Exterminating Angel

September 13, 2009

exterminating-angel_420

Another Bunuel film:  this one about a group of upper class (bourgeois) in Mexico City who come to a dinner party and can’t ever leave.  They can’t leave the room – can’t step over the threshold to the next one where the front door is visible.  Nor can anyone outside come in and get them.  Nobody knows why.

Not all that unlike those discretely charming ones I was watching last week.  They too are immobilized, in time, in the world, in their little world, and undone by dinner parties.  As Bunuel said in the interview printed in the pamphlet that came with the Criterion Collection DVD, “I am a man of obsessions.”

While the guests are “trapped” in the parlor, they slowly descend towards savagery.  The idiotic and not so idiotic pretensions of their upper crust culture fall away and are replaced by despair, hunger, the desire to find a sacrificial victim, and rank disgust with one another.  Not a new theme, not a deep theme, but a good theme!  And treated with humor and biting sarcasm by LB.  Of course, lots of strange, inexplicable images too, like why did that guy tie a blindfold on a sheep that got into the room?

One other thing about the interview that struck me was that the critics often presented rather involved or esoteric interpretations of things in the film, asking for a “Yes, that’s it“, or a”No” from Bunuel.  Most of the time it was a “no.”  We are so eager to explain, or have explained to us the weird or the mysterious.  Especially from artists, whom we assume must know what they mean and have a clear message (even if it’s a clunky Cold War political allegory that seems utterly incredible – one explanation of the bear’s antics in the adjoining room – he represents the USSR threatening the bourgeoisie!)  More often than not, Bunuel said something like, “Well, I just wanted a strange image,” or “it just happened that way, and I really liked how it looked.”


Life imitates art

September 8, 2009

discreet_charm  2007-08-19-ShabbeyRoad2

That’s what Oscar Wilde said, life imitates art, not the other way ’round.  I’ve been watching some Luis Bunuel films, and both he and Oscar would be amused by this pair of images, or appalled, maybe.

The one on the left is from The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie from 1972.  The one on the right is of the Bush Gang on his ranch in 2007.  A similar, but better image appeared on the front page of the NY Times and I immediately thought of the lost souls of La charme discret,  walking, walking, walking, never getting anywhere… [In the Times' image, Condi was facing 3/4 backwards, as if beckoning to Georgie Bush to c'mon...]  Were the editors and photographers of the paper thinking what I’m thinking now?

The movie is mostly dreams, some dreams within dreams, of two French bourgeois men who can’t ever seem to get time to eat their dinner or to have proper sex.  They are always being interrupted by…reality?  In one sequence, the ambassador from the Latin American nation of Miranda is at a party and repeatedly asked uncomfortable questions by guests:  Is it true that Miranda has the highest homicide rate in the world?  The greatest infant mortality?  That poverty is at an all-time high?  No, no, no.  Exaggerations.  Not that bad at all.  Finally, the importunate questioning is too much, and he shoots one of his tormentors…and awakes.

They are all liars, hypocrites, criminals, and frauds.   They deal in cocaine and denounce the degradation of the times over cocktails.  The priest is deeply pious, and he even grants absolution to the man he confesses who turns out to be the killer of his parents.  Then he shoots the man with a shotgun.


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