'Nam, 1970's cinema, absurdist, Academy Award Nominee, Academy Awards, Adrian Lyne, Alexandra Stewart, Alice in Wonderland, Alois Nebel, animated films, Au revoir, auteur theory, avant-garde, battle of the sexes, black market, Black Moon, bureaucracy, Cathryn Harrison, cinema, Cold War, Czech-Polish border, Czechoslovakian films, Danny Aiello, dark films, drama, Elizabeth Pena, experimental film, fall of Communism, Fatal Attraction, Film auteurs, films, foreign films, French cinema, French films, French New Wave, homeless shelter, horror films, hospitals, Indecent Proposal, insanity, isolated estates, Jacob Singer, Jacob's Ladder, Jan Svankmajer, Jason Alexander, Joe Dallesandro, les enfants, Louis Malle, Movies, post-office, psychological horror, Rotoscoping, scary faces, Silent Hill, strange families, talking animals, Therese Giehse, Tim Robbins, Tomas Lunak, train conductor, unicorns, veterans, Vietnam vet, Vietnam War
Although I didn’t really plan it that way, last Saturday’s screenings definitely had a theme: the unreality of reality. These were films that may (or may not) have been about insanity or they may (or may not) have about something more tangible and bizarre. All three of the films challenge audience perceptions of what is real and imaginary, proving that we really don’t know as much about our world as we like to pretend we do.
My immersion into dark animated fare continues with Alois Nebel, an Oscar nominated Czech film from 2011. As I’ve mentioned before, animation style can, often, be the biggest impediment to my initial enjoyment of animated films. In the case of Alois Nebel, however, this issue was pretty much thrown out the window early on with the film’s gorgeous black-and-white imagery. At first, the animation style reminded me of a more severe, serious version of Archer. Upon closer examination, however, I realized that the animated images were actually Rotoscoped. Now, in general, I’m not the world’s biggest Rotoscoping fan: up to this point, my go-tos for that style would have been either A Scanner Darkly or Waking Life, neither of which really blew me away. The images and animation in Alois Nebel, however, are certainly the best Rotoscoping I’ve yet seen and have given me a new benchmark for stuff like this in the future. As always, I heartily approve of anything that expands my horizons.
Tomas Lunak’s film begins in a small town on the Czech-Polish border in 1989, at the tail end of the Cold War. The titular character is a quiet, reserved train conductor who first comes to us via voice-over as he unemotionally recites the train schedule, his droning voice taking on the feel of a litany or a mantra. He lives in a town that seems to exist outside of the current world, a town where the black market is in full swing, thanks to the local military and one of Alois’ “friends”, a fellow switchman. Alois has been having dreams of his childhood, specifically about events that happened in 1945, when German citizens were expelled from Czechoslovakia. His caretaker was one of these people and Alois never ceases wondering what became of her. His dreams become interpreted by those around him as a mental breakdown, however, and he is committed to a pretty wretched insane asylum (electro-shock therapy and Rohypnol appear to be the standard treatment choices). When he is released, Alois ends up homeless and falls in with a former train conductor who now resides at the local homeless shelter. He begins a tentative romance with the woman who runs the shelter before events around him conspire to throw him back into the mystery of his missing caretaker, Dorothe, and her fate. Into this mix we pour a mysterious mute man with an ax and a grudge, the collapse of Communism and a harrowing finale involving betrayal, a torrential downpour and washed-out roads.
There’s an awful lot to take in with Alois Nebel and I’ll be honest: even with an extremely close reading of the film and copious notes, I’m still not sure that I understand everything. In particular, I found many of the relationships to be a bit confounding, especially when dealing with older/younger versions of the characters. There are times when I was positive that I was following one character, only to find out that it was someone else, entirely. The stuff about the mute man is especially confusing, which can be a bit of a critical wound when one realizes how intrinsically he’s tied into everything.
There also seemed to be a lot of very casual betrayal going on, so casual, in fact, that I keep wondering whether I missed something: surely these people couldn’t so actively fuck each other over without incurring any sort of ill-will from those around them, could they? Again, I’m not sure if the intent was to highlight institutionalized duplicity, point out how naive Alois was or if I just managed to misread it but there seemed to be quite a few examples of characters doing everything in their power to step on someone else.
For as confounding as Alois Nebel can be, however, the film is also powerfully hypnotic and flows with a beautifully lethargic sense of dream-like wonder. The sound design is exquisite and, when paired with the stunning imagery, combines to create a truly immerse experience. At times, the film almost seems like a partial horror film (there is a particularly nasty ax murder that occurs) or nod to German expressionism (the combination of Rotoscoping and black-and-white imagery makes for some truly sinister shadows), although the slow pace and dour attitude definitely place this squarely in the “serious art film” category.
More than anything, I found myself wondering just what, exactly, this film would look like as a strictly live-action affair. From what I can imagine, it would still look pretty darn interesting. The shot composition and framing is nothing if not reminiscent of live-action films and the frequent silent scenes, showcasing only subtle facial expressions or, in some cases, no expressions at all, would certainly play well with “real” actors. Ultimately, however, the Rotoscoping helps to add an unearthly edge to the film which is perfectly in tune with its themes: Alois Nebel is about a man who doesn’t quite fit in anywhere and the film, itself, really doesn’t, either. Patient viewers (or anyone with a sense of Cold War Czech politics) will find much to like and appreciate here but those expecting more action may find this to be a bit inert. Odd, unsettling and slightly too confusing to be a complete success (for me, at least), Alois Nebel is still a fascinating film.
I’ve always had kind of a love/hate relationship with Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder. As a rule, I’m not really a fan of Lyne’s oeuvre: his career has tended towards Hollywood potboilers like Fatal Attraction, Nine 1/2 Weeks and Indecent Proposal, none of which I’m a big fan of (I do tend to have a soft-spot in my heart for Flashdance, however: that film is just so stupid that it’s kind of brilliant). Jacob’s Ladder always stuck out like a sore thumb, at least to me: the closest any other Lyne film got to that little psychological shocker was Fatal Attraction, which wasn’t particularly close.
Jacob’s Ladder deals with the struggles of Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), a Vietnam war vet who currently works at the post-office, romances his co-worker (Elizabeth Pena) and has extremely unsettling flashbacks to his war-time experiences. You see, Jacob was part of an army platoon that experienced…something…during the war and he’s never been quite right ever since. He goes to see his friend and chiropractor Louis (Danny Aiello, in a truly great supporting role) whenever he needs an adjustment but there’s no adjustment that will fix his bizarre dreams or the creepy imagery that has begun to seep into his waking like, including strange creatures with no faces and demonic lizard-men. Jezzie, his girlfriend, is starting to get fed up with his problems, especially once he has a complete freakout at a nightclub and begins screaming about monsters and demons. He might just be ready to confine himself to the loony bin until he happens to reconnect with one of his old army buddies and realizes that he’s not alone: everyone in his former platoon is experiencing the same issues. Jacob tries to take action, even going so far as to initiate a class-action lawsuit with lawyer Jason Alexander (a mere one year into his tenure on Seinfeld), but is stymied at every turn by his own comrades, shadowy mob figures and those damned creepy faceless critters. Will Jacob finally get to the bottom of his problems or is this all one big exercise in futility?
For most of its run-time, Jacob’s Ladder is a pretty effective, nifty little chiller. The visuals may seem commonplace nowadays but it’s interesting to note that the “scary-quick-changing-face” effect that’s become all too ubiquitous in modern horror films actually got its start here. In context, it works well but I can’t help but hate its genesis on principle, alone: if Jacob’s Ladder could only see what it wrought with Paranormal Activity…
The acting is, generally, pretty good, with Robbins giving a nicely nuanced performance as Jacob and Aiello providing just the right amount of mystery as his “is he/isn’t he?” friend. Pena wears out her welcome fairly quickly, unfortunately, playing her character with so much anger and aggression that she seems sorely out-of-place in the film: she even seems pissed off when she’s making love. Her attitude works in the scenes where it’s necessary (blowing up after the dance-floor fiasco, for instance) but fails completely in those scenes where she’s actually supposed to act loving. I never bought Robbins and Pena as a couple, ever, which seems like a real lost opportunity.
The film has an interesting, atmospheric quality to it, although the horror elements are really only paid off in a few scenes. One scene, in particular, is a real corker and the true horror centerpiece for the film: after escaping from abductors, conking his head on the pavement and getting his wallet stolen by a Salvation Army Santa, Jacob is taken to a hospital and sent for X-rays. As he’s being wheeled down the hallway, going down first one corridor, then the next, Jacob’s surroundings gradually change, going from normal hospital sterility to the kind of gore-drenched, body-part littered hellscapes that one would normally find in Silent Hill. The truth? The hospital scene in Jacob’s Ladder was actually a big influence on the seminal horror video game. At any rate, it’s an amazing scene and goes a long way towards cementing the film’s horror cachet.
So, with all this to recommend it, why do I have a love/hate relationship with the movie? Well, you see, it happens to have one of those twist endings and this particular one manages to undo the entire film as surely as if it pulled on a loose shoelace. This isn’t the kind of ending where you say, “Eh, it was alright.” It’s the kind of ending that makes you say, “Hey, wait a minute! How is that possible if this and this and this actually happened?” It’s the kind of ending that seems powerful and emotional, for about 30 seconds, before you start to really think about it. Once you let it bounce around in your noggin, however, you realize that the ending is pretty much impossible: if you accept it, you basically end up discounting the entire film. If you choose to toss the ending out the window, however, then you’re provided with absolutely no sense of closure or resolution. In other words, a lose/lose situation. Ultimately, this will always make Jacob’s Ladder a good, rather than great, film as far as I’m concerned.
There are times when you can be completely unprepared for a film, even if you’ve been anticipating it for some time. Case in point: French auteur Louis Malle’s 1975 surreal oddity, Black Moon. I’d read about the film for some time and had become quite curious to actually see it. After finally viewing it, however, I find myself nearly as perplexed as I was before I saw it. Sometimes, seeing does not bring clarity.
Although he had a distinguished career (including a 1956 Academy Award for Best Documentary and several nominations after) in France before he made his first English-language films, it will probably be a trio of these American films that he’s best remembered for: Pretty Baby (1978), Atlantic City (1981) and My Dinner with Andre (1981). These films, along with Au revoir, les enfants (1987), showcase Malle as a filmmaker as comfortable with testing film’s technical constraints as he is with pushing the emotional limits. Although Malle was a constant presence during the French New Wave of cinema, his work never really fit explicitly into that movement. At least, it didn’t really fit into that movement until he released Black Moon in 1975, however, only a decade or two since the movement ran its course.
Black Moon is many things but plot-driven is not one of them. Nonetheless, there is a plot (of sorts) and it will sound imminently familiar to anyone who’s read Alice in Wonderland: a young, inquisitive blonde girl wanders about a strange house, meets bizarre individuals, talking animals and, gradually, comes to learn something about herself. The young girl, in this case, is named Lily (Cathryn Harrison, a mere 16-years-old at the time of shooting) and she’s on the run from some kind of lethal gender war: men and women have taken up arms and proceeding to blast each other to kingdom come. Lily takes refuge in a mysterious estate and meets the eccentric family who lives there: Brother Lily (Warhol regular Joe Dallesandro, who gets by his acting inadequacies by way of remaining mute for the entire film), Sister Lily (Alexandra Stewart, as mute as Joe) and the Old Lady (Therese Giehse, who died shortly before the film was released and to whom it’s dedicated) and her husband, Humphrey the rat (yes, he really is a rat).
After introducing these decidedly odd elements, Black Moon does what any good absurdist film would do: piles one absurd event on top of the other. Lily discovers the family’s pet unicorn (a creepy-looking pony-thing that looked, to my disturbed eyes at least, as if it had a skull for a face: I don’t think it does but I could probably be forgiven for thinking that); drinks milk out of an absurdly large glass, while a pig looks on from a high-chair (hello, Alice, my old friend…); has to constantly pull up her constantly falling-down knickers; runs over a badger and suckles the old woman. We see naked children leading around a giant pig (shades of Jodorowsky); crying flowers (don’t ask) and creepy people in gas masks.
In many ways, Black Moon does come across as a kinder, friendlier version of a Jodorowsky film or, possibly, a version of Waiting for Godot enhanced by three sheets of acid. As with any absurdist/avant-garde film, the visuals are at least as (make that: much more) important than the actual story, although I think that the description of this as a “post-Apocalyptic Alice in Wonderland” is as good as anything I could come up with.
This is a defiantly weird film (Brother Lily can communicate via thought but only while touching someone; the Old Woman appears to die in one scene only to be fine in the next) but it’s also a pretty interesting one, anchored by the wide-eyed performance of Harrison as the surrogate Alice. She sees a lot of weird stuff, no doubt about it, but she always seems to be ready for more, which, consequently, makes us pretty game for more, too. When faced with the bizarre, Lily grits her teeth, puts her head down and says, “Just a minute, please,” whether dealing with hawk-slaying siblings, talking unicorns or hungry old women.
Whatever Black Moon actually ends up being about (Is it a strange Alice in Wonderland adaptation? A dialogue about the battle of the sexes? A story of a girl becoming a young woman?), the film is quite lovely to look at and filled with just enough absurdity to make one wonder what could possibly be around the corner. At times, it reminded me of the unholy offspring of Jan Svankmajer’s Alice and Hardy’s original The Wicker Man, a gauzy, odd landscape with any number of potential horrors just over the horizon. At other times, my wife and I turned to each other and shrugged in complete bafflement. Without a doubt, this is a strange one.