Feature Friday: “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” (1964)

It took me a while to catch up with this one, but when I did, I saw it projected at the Siskel. The experience was utterly beautiful and overwhelming, so see it in a theater if you can. It’s one of the greatest love stories I know.

Parajanov is frequently mentioned in comparison to Andrei Tarkovsky, but he’s sadly not gotten anywhere near the attention. The two were friends and fellow rebels against Soviet Realism. Tarkovsky ended up exiled. Parajanov got sent to Siberia, 1973–7. (He was later imprisoned again in the early 80s.) Despite this, both men continued making films until they both passed away (Tarkovsky in 1986, Parajanov in 1990.)

Parajanov’s work is in some ways similar to Tarkovsky’s, but also extremely different. Like Tarkovsky, he was a master of composition, and made extensive use of it. (I initially came across both Parajanov and Tarkovsky due to my interest in other composition-based directors, like Jack Smith, Peter Greenaway, and Derek Jarman.) That’s not to say that Parajanov didn’t use montage—he did—but that you have to read the mise-en-scène to know what’s going on. (Pay close attention, for instance, to Shadows‘s use of color.)

That makes Parajanov sound like work, but he’s really quite fun. All of his films, even the much more sober Color of Pomegranates (1968), are pretty silly. His work often reminds me of Calvino’s, being similarly rooted in folktale and folk poetry, and heavy doses of the supernatural. (He’s also not unlike Wes Anderson, I suppose—though giddier, and with fewer Stones tracks.)

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Feature Friday: “The Keep” (1983)

I was raised on early 80s cinema, and I’ll always love it. As well as defend it: for one thing, it’s easy in the eternal autumn of CGI to recognize just how exquisite production design was back then. The Empire Strikes Back, Superman II, The Shining, Excalibur, The Road Warrior, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Time Bandits, Blade Runner, Conan the Barbarian, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, The Dark Crystal, TRON, Return of the Jedi, The Neverending Story, Brazil, Legend, … They’re all wonderfully enjoyable outsized films that still look great today.

The Keep, visually, holds its own in that company, and has the merit of being the most “New Wave” of the bunch. Sure, it’s set during WWII—but the Tangerine Dream soundtrack just screams early 80s. (How could it not?) (The track that starts almost 15 minutes in is especially awesome.) And as the film continues, its period trappings steadily fall away, until we’re left with images of Ian McKellen striding across abstract, fluorescent-lit sets that look like something out of a Gary Numan video

(Mind you, I’m not at all complaining!)

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Feature Friday: “The Devils” (1971)

I was looking for a copy of Lair of the White Worm (1988), my favorite Ken Russell film, but couldn’t find it. So we’ll have to make do with The Devils, another extraordinary (and far more notorious) film by the late master.

The Devils was hard to find uncut for a long time, and was even banned in the UK, because it’s giddily blasphemous and offended a lot of people. I watched it in the late 90s and thought it was “OK.” Either I saw a severely edited version, or I was half asleep at the time, or just feeling jaded, because The Devils really is pretty nuts.

And, sure, it’s blasphemous. So what? People blaspheme daily, and so art should, too. And it’s not as though Russell was targeting only “Catholicism” or “Christians” or “religion”; he got a rise out of criticizing everybody. He had too solid an understanding of humanity—of its many accomplishments and its many failings—to take anyone’s sensibilities too seriously. (In that regard he’s a lot like Paul Verhoeven and even Peter Greenaway: folks who’d rather be honest about what is grotesque in human nature.)

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Feature Friday: “The Heartbreak Kid” (1972)

I know the world is getting better because I can now read X-Men comics on my computer (and touchpad!). But I know it’s getting worse because when I search for The Heartbreak Kid, Elaine May’s brilliant 1972 feature, I find mostly the Ben Stiller/Farrelly Brothers utter-shit version from 2007. So it takes some sorting.

The Heartbreak Kid was May’s second film, her followup to 1971’s A New Leaf (already featured on FF). I don’t know much about how well it did at the time. Shepherd had of course just scored a great success with her debut, Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971). Grodin’s career was picking up steam: he had just finished working with May’s former partner Mike Nichols on Catch-22 (1970); this was his first leading role. Critics liked it. I myself didn’t see it until a few years ago, because like most of May’s films, it’s often been difficult to find on video in the US. Now it’s up at YouTube, so the world’s getting better again.

I do know that, back in the day, people compared this film a lot to The Graduate; May seems to have encouraged that. (Among other things, Grodin was Nichols’s first choice for Benjamin Braddock.) And I like The Graduate fine (especially its last few minutes), but The Heartbreak Kid is clearly the better film. It’s one of the sharpest, funniest indictments of male immaturity—and how it can manifest itself through infidelity—that I have ever seen. No wonder eternal man-children like Ben Stiller and the Farrellys fucked it up.

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Feature Friday: “Anima Mundi” (1992)

Anima Mundi is Latin for “the shortest Godfrey Reggio / Philip Glass collaboration”—the third of their four “musical nature documentaries.” (The others are the Hopi-titled Koyaanisqatsi, 1982, Powaqqatsi, 1989, and Naqoyqatsi, 2002—although the less said about that last one, the better.) Reggio and Glass also sometimes get assigned Baraka (1992) but, beyond clearly inspiring it, they had nothing to do with it. (They were busy making Anima Mundi!)

Anima Mundi also means “the soul of the world,” although I think Reggio and Glass thought it means “animal world,” because that’s what the movie’s mostly about: animals. (That above image is the opening shot, a kind of counterpoint to the footage of people staring into the camera in Powaqqatsi.)

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Feature Friday: “The Baby of Mâcon” (1993)

Time Magazine, Peter Greenaway had you beat back in 1993—and then some. Below the jump you’ll find the polemical Welsh director’s response to a similar debate in 1993, when the perennially outrageous United Colors of Benetton ultra-outraged Britons with an ad featuring a newborn baby (still bloody, its umbilical cord still attached). Greenaway replied:

What is so horrible about a newborn baby? Why is that image (one that is seen many times a day in hospitals all over the country) so unacceptable, when much more horrific images are presented on television and the cinema, featuring murder and rape, but glamorized and made safe?

And thus he set out to make a film that would be exactly what he thought audiences wanted.

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Feature Friday: “The Room” (2003)

I put off seeing The Room for a long time. Some friends told me it was so terrible that it was good, and me, being a real smartypants, thought I knew what they meant by that, and ignored their requests that I join them for midnight screenings at the Music Box (some of them featuring appearances by writer/director/producer/star Tommy Wiseau). This was in 2008 or 2009 or so.

Then, some time after that, my friend Justin, over one of the holidays, sat me down in front of his laptop and made me watch the thing with him. (He couldn’t believe that I hadn’t yet seen it.) And I was, as so many others have been, immediately captivated. (Since which time I’ve seen it numerous times, including once at midnight at the Music Box. Tommy Wiseau was supposed to show up, but he cancelled.)

My friends were mistaken in one thing: The Room is not “so terrible that it’s good.” The Room isn’t terrible. It’s also not good. It exists beyond labels like “good” and “terrible,” in some other realm, possibly the realm of outsider art. You can see that Tommy Wiseau wanted to make a film, that he was able to amass many of the tools that people traditionally use when making films—but he used them to assemble something other than a film. It looks a lot like a film, to be sure. You can watch it, and should. But it is something very other.

Luckily, that thing, whatever it may be, is bewilderingly adorable.

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Feature Friday: “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One” (1968)

Don’t let the odd title put you off! It’s just some funny word meaning how things can become interconnected. Cinematically, it contains both “Psycho” and “Taxi” so how can the film be bad? And imagine how smart you’ll sound when it rolls off your tongue in front of your friends.

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is an experimental meta-documentary by William Greaves, a documentary filmmaker and actor. The premise is very simple: Greaves auditions couples in Central Park, repeatedly running them through the same inane dialogue. Meanwhile, his crew films him filming, increasingly turning the camera on themselves to express their growing unease with Greaves’s (deliberate) lack of direction. From this cascades a loosely controlled experiment in dissolution, which quickly becomes intensely dramatic and absorbing… It’s proto-reality TV!

Greaves later revisited the project, aided by Steven Soderbergh and Steve Buscemi, in the mid-2000s, to make another version, Take 2 1/2. That you can get on the wonderful Criterion release, which the video below is taken from.

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Feature Friday: “Withnail & I” (1987)

OK, so don’t get your hopes up; this is a pretty poor copy of Withnail & I. I mean, you wouldn’t want to watch it this way, not when the gorgeous Criterion edition exists. But it is the whole film, and as such perfectly fine for leaving on in the background while you down lighter fluid and watch your thumbs go all weird…

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Feature Friday: “Syndromes and a Century” (2006)

Easily one of the best films of the past seven years, by one of the greatest living filmmakers, Apichatapong Weerasethakul.

A funny story: I actually knew him, when I lived in Thailand (2003–5). I was given his cell phone number by a mutual film friend. One day I went to visit him at his studio in northern Bangkok. We sat around for a while, talking movies. Finally I asked what he was working on. [Note that this was in 2004, by which point I had seen only his first feature, the brilliant exquisite corpse Mysterious Object at Noon (2000).] He told me that he was finishing a new film, trying to get it ready in time for Cannes. “If we finish in time, we go,” he said. “If not—mai pen rai” (“no worries”).

That film turned out to be Tropical Malady (2004), which went on to win Cannes’s Jury Prize, effectively launching Apichatapong’s career. I’m glad I didn’t distract him overmuch!

Two years later, Apichatapong followed it up with a film some consider even better. (I myself rank them about the same, which is to say that they are both essential masterpieces of contemporary cinema.)

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Feature Friday: “Celine and Julie Go Boating” (1974)

What a surprise to find this up at YouTube! Although less and less surprises me these days.

How to describe Celine and Julie Go Boating, other than “one of the greatest films ever made”?

Two women, Celine and Julie, a magician and a librarian, bond over a shared interest in magic and the occult. Together they discover one of the weirdest haunted houses in all of cinema, a mansion in which a Henry James novel is being eternally reenacted. Celine and Julie can enter the house, which will expel them after a few hours with no memory of what’s going on inside. But when they eat a magic candy, they start to remember what they witnessed…

It’s funny and cool and sexy and more than a little spooky.

It’s inspired in part by Lewis Carroll, and was partial inspiration for Desperately Seeking Susan (1985).

Also, it’s one of the greatest films ever made.

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Feature Friday: “Lifeforce” (1985)

I’ve already written at length about this one, a sci-fi alien-invasion zombie gothic horror movie that lurches crazily between genres and plot points while audaciously justifying excessive, excessive, excessive nudity and poetically innovative special effects—and still finds room to let Patrick Stewart kiss a man. But allow me to write a bit more!

Because although Lifeforce (1985) steals shamelessly from many other films—2001, Alien, Erotic Kill, Planet of the Vampires—there is no other movie like Lifeforce.

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Feature Friday: “Mostly Martha” (2001)

So I haven’t seen Mostly Martha since it came out, and I’ll freely admit that on paper, it looks god-awful. A tightly wound German chef, Martha, finds her perfectly-ordered world tipped into chaos when her sister dies, forcing her to take in her niece, Lina; meanwhile, her career is challenged by the hire of a freewheeling Italian chef, Mario. Will the 107-minute run time prove enough for Martha to learn about life and love, and wind up a happy family with Mario and Lina?

Of course. But it’s all in how one tells it …

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Feature Friday: “A New Leaf” (1971)

Sadly, rumors persist that Elaine May wasn’t a good director. Sure, she wasn’t particularly skilled at finishing her films on time, or within their assigned budgets—but she delivered sheer genius every time she stepped behind the camera. Of course, it’s difficult to appreciate that now, since she’s been so unfairly served by video: only Mikey and Nicky (1976) is available on DVD. (It’s outrageous that The Heartbreak Kid, 1972, has never been released—especially after that god-awful remake—although one can sometimes find it streaming at Netflix.)

Hence, we must rely on YouTube. After the jump awaits May’s first feature, A New Leaf (1971), an wonderful, ultra-dark comedy starring both her and Walter Matthau. (Briefly: Matthau plays a spoiled brat who, having exhausted his inheritance, resolves to marry the wealthy May, then murder her.)

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Feature Friday: “Swans: A Long Slow Screw” (1986)

Earlier this week, I posted about Hail the New Puritan, one of my favorite films from 1986. Sadly, the full movie isn’t up at YouTube (although you can find clips there, and the full thing elsewhere if you poke around—and if you’re in Chicago and want to see it, CALL ME!). So here’s another favorite music film from that year, of Swans in concert …

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Feature Friday: “Sleuth” (1972)

John recently stripped this site of its “Features” tab, where I was steadily and secretly stockpiling links to feature films that are up in their entirety at YouTube. So maybe I’ll just start embedding them on the main page? One every Friday?

This week’s film will be:

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The Smiths Songs You May Be Missing, Part 5: Miscellaneous Uncollected

Greetings once again! Since we’re doing this, we may as well be thorough. There are a bunch of Smiths songs (and versions of Smiths songs) that were never included on any of their official records (The Smiths; Hatful of Hollow; Meat Is Murder; The Queen Is Dead; Strangeways, Here We Come; Louder Than Bombs; Singles). Today I thought we could listen to them, see if any are worth our attention…

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