“There’s a problem with your films. I don’t understand it. It’s not clear at all.”

A Belgian movie, watched for the Shadowplay thing, but I opted to cover Ferat Vampire instead because this one seemed… more difficult. As the red curtains open and the film begins, diorama-like, full of seared memories and dream logic, I tell myself “don’t call it Lynchian, that’s what everyone has said about it,” but Goodreads tell me that Smolders wrote a book about Eraserhead and Vimeo says he made a video called Lynch Empire, so nevermind, it’s Lynchian. This is his only feature to date, in a 35-year career of shorts.

Kids walk towards the camera, a bug is pinned to the wall, twin Poltergeist II preachers are flashback-puppeteers, causing a wolfman to kill the girl to big choral music, like hymns with some Thin Red Line mixed in. The girl lives again, only to be killed with scissors. Then the doctor, who is viewing these memory-plays by peering into our suit-wearing protagonist’s ear, says he’s fantasizing and he never had a sister, let alone a murdered one, and he needs to chill out.

Our man has an a static Crispin Glovery intensity, and a facial birthmark so we can conveniently tell who plays him in flashback, living in a city under near-permanent eclipse (the second time in 24 hours I’ve thought of Dark City). He works as the bug guy in a museum – a zoo worker in a room full of film cans – and we’ve seen multiple sets of identical twins at this point, making this the second movie this year after the Mandico short to be strongly reminiscent of A Zed & Two Noughts.

Enough with all the comparisons to other films – we go into overdrive when a black woman (the museum security guard) appears, sick and naked and pregnant, in his bed. We hear her thoughts, untranslated (at least on my DVD), while he deals with his stress by watching anthropological films of a beardy colonialist white man (his father, and the museum director). She make him promise not to leave, he immediately runs into the hallway while she gets killed by the ghost of his dead sister, then turns into a cocoon that births a white woman who goes to the museum, naked but for a leopard-skin coat, and murders a taxidermist, the sun comes out and everyone gets annoyed, and now the allusions/symbolism are out of my league.

Anyway, the closeup of leaf insects are great. This would seem to be a cult movie in need of a cult. Smolders was reportedly born in Kinshasa, says in the extras that his film’s vision of Africa is “a fantasized territory based on stories written by … large museums which … fanatically classified a universe that they didn’t understand.” He also says that the story’s logic is based on the rule that “what happens to a character is exactly what he most fears, yet desires at the same time.”

A theater group – not a very good one – is rehearsing the 1921 satire The Insect Play, but the guy playing Dung Beetle (Jirí Lábus, of a fascinating-sounding 1994 version of Amerika) keeps hallucinating insects (real and stop-motion) while learning his lines.

From the very beginning, Svankmajer and his crew appear onscreen, like the DVD extras have been cut into the feature. After a scene it’ll show the filming, the animation, direction, insect wrangling, sound effects (with constant scraping and clanking sounds plus the insect patter, they’re great throughout), or interview the actors about their dreams.

Fun movie, and only 93 minutes, a breeze to watch. To that point, it doesn’t seem like Svankmajer’s most consequential film, nor does it appear to be some kind of final statement on his career, unless I’m missing something about the Insect Play. Ungenerously, one could say choice of subject combined with the mechanics of behind-the-scenes production is the last word on his preference against humans and their messy realities. Jan: “I direct it like an animated film or puppet theater – short takes, minimal movement of the camera, stylized acting, no psychology, as if the actors had wires attached to the head and strings on the arms.”

Watching movies from last year’s Sundance and Rotterdam this week… this one premiered in Rotterdam’s Signatures section, playing with The Wandering Soap Opera, Lover for a Day, Mrs. Fang and Lek and the Dogs.

It’s unwise to watch more than two Italian horrors per SHOCKtober, but this caught my eye at Videodrome, and it’s been years since anything caught my eye at Videodrome since we haven’t lived close enough, so I rented it to celebrate being able to spontaneously pick movies off shelves again, rather than relying on my premeditated lists. Surprise: it’s really good. Almost seems like a parody of previous Italian horrors – “woman in a strange new house discovers gateway to hell in her basement” is the plot of half these things, and this one adds a Rosemary’s Baby element, with supernatural cultists enlisting the unwilling woman in their rituals.

If you see something suspicious in an Italian horror, always put your eyeball reeeeeal close to it:

Starts off shaky, with a mad prophet stumbling in from the desert, meeting some hippies, mis-quoting a Rolling Stones lyric to each other, making me wonder if the song was translated into Italian and back – then when night falls there’s a hippie slaughter, and I realize after Race With The Devil, I’ve accidentally programmed a satanist double-feature. In Germany years later, a balding dude follows a woman home and kills her, “why did you disobey?,” then on the subway a pickpocket pulls a human heart out of the balding dude’s jacket, and this is already crazier with more visual imagination than the other satanist movie.

A straight plot summary seems wrong for such a mad movie, but I’ll try, Kelly Curtis hits an old man with her car (Herbert Lom, Walken’s doctor in The Dead Zone), takes him home where his insects impregnate her with the devil, then he dies after a rabbit knocks over his meds, leaving behind a sentient death-shroud. Kelly is attacked by the reanimated body of her knife-murdered friend. A hot doctor helps her out, investigates the subterranean cult beneath her house, somehow ends up dying in an auto explosion, and the mom apparently survives the same fire, saved by her devil-baby. Whatever nonsense is happening, the camera is always up for filming it in bold color, with roving movements or in extreme close-up. There is bird tossing, voicemail from a dead man, a metal coffin unsealed with a can opener, a stork attack, a face transplant, and a basement with a skylight.

I’ve previously written up McCay’s Little Nemo (aka Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics) and How a Mosquito Operates and The Sinking of the Lusitania, and Bill Plympton’s restoration of The Flying House. Well, I got my hands on the Master Edition DVD, so now I’m watching (in most cases rewatching) the rest.


Gertie The Dinosaur (1914)

Similar to Lusitania, the full movie is more than the animation – it opens with a documentary account of the cartoon’s inspiration, with intertitles explaining to audiences unfamiliar with animation how work-intensive the process was. Per the commentary, the shorter version of this film lacks the intro and titles and was played in a live show with McCay on stage interacting with his dinosaur, giving commands and having conversation. I like how the commentary says Emile Cohl and J. Stuart Blackton were McCay’s primary influences, but that McCay also publicly claimed to have invented the animated film.

Gertie attacks the camera/presenter:

Guess what’s about to happen to that stack of original Gertie drawings:


The Centaurs (fragment)

Because you can show topless women if they’re half horse. A weird, slow-moving little piece that Canemaker imagines may have been part of McCay’s vaudeville act a la Gertie.


Gertie On Tour (fragment)
Gertie torments a trolley then dances for a crowd of dinosaurs. Animation scholars today don’t know why.


Flip’s Circus (fragment)

Little Nemo character Flip performs a stage show with a mini-Gertie, which finally eats Flip then vomits him out. Serves him right, really, since Flip spends half the movie beating the thing with a club.


Bug Vaudeville (1921)

Sketches of insects doing circus-like stunt routines on a stage, each one lasting about twice as long as it could. All this is being dreamt by a hobo under a tree (his head appearing MST3K-style watching the insect action) who frustratingly ate some cheesecake, not rarebit.


The Pet (1921)

Cute little creature walks into a house where a woman feeds it. It grows visibly larger while eating. As as it grows, it eats increasingly large things, from food to dishes to household decorations, finally to buildings and airplanes, until the army blows it to bits. Favorite scene: the pet drinks from a hose, then slurps up and eats the hose like spaghetti. Of course this is all just a rarebit dream by the man of the house, who eats dinner at “the club” and resents his wife for wanting a pet. Plympton’s redo of The Flying House is great and all, but I think this was my favorite of the rarebit fiend shorts.

The included documentary, Remembering Winsor McCay (1976) by John Canemaker, is cool for providing first-hand accounts of McCay’s life and work by his younger assistant John Fitzsimmons. But since the films are silent, I’d already played them with Canemaker’s commentary, which reuses all of Fitz’s stories and comments.

A Gentle Spirit (1985)

Morphy, smeary animation beneath a crosshatched texture overlay. Time is ticking away and people appear still and sad, a slow-motion human drama with insect cameos, until music ramps up to a climactic chase scene. I couldn’t figure out the story, but I think Dumala assumed no viewer would be so uncultured as to be unfamiliar with the source Dostoevsky novel. Will have to watch this again after seeing the Bresson version (Une Femme Douce, “a young woman kills herself, leaving no explanation to her grief-stricken pawnbroker husband”), which sounds like a barrel of laughs. Some very cool effects in this, including a table transforming into a bed.


Walls (1988)

A man is trapped within some walls. Sometimes things (drawers, insects) appear on their featureless surfaces. I guess he goes mad from sensory deprivation, since his senses start freaking out, his eyes and ears transforming. I liked it better than the previous movie.

This would seem to be an inspiration for both Tool’s Prison Sex video and the movie Symbol. Dumala would further explore his interest in insects with Franz Kafka before returning to Dostoevsky for his half-hour opus.


Crime and Punishment (2000)

I don’t think it’s all drawing, looks like there are layers of filmed objects in there, though in standard-def it’s hard to tell. Of course there are insects – buzzing flies in every scene – and I recognize the basic Crime (with an axe, killing the pawnbroker and a witness), but the crime is finished with only seven minutes to go in the film, so there’s little Punishment. The killer sits at home feeling bad for a minute before Dumala goes outside to play with animals in the rain. Perhaps a mute witness to the crime kills himself at the end? There are some cool effects – I liked the liquid glimmer of nervous eyes in extreme close-up – but it’s so static it loses my attention repeatedly over the thirty minutes.

Raptor in the rain, a drop falling from its beak:

Happy to come across this again – haven’t seen it since the VHS days. Awesome, hour-long stop-motion with live actors interacting with the miniature creations, which must’ve been difficult. Dark sci-fi fairy-tale following tiny Tom, born to normal-sized parents, then abducted away to a torture-lab, adopted by a tiny-people society, and brought on a guerrilla mission with a well-armed little guy. Death and horror is around every corner, and pretty much everyone is doomed. The grimy, insect-filled design is marvelous, would be cool to see this in HD someday.

Stills cannot convey the majesty:

Oh no, writer/director Dave Borthwick died a few years ago, after codirecting a kids’ animated feature. Dave’s “Bolex Brothers” partner Dave Alex Riddett is a stop-motion cinematographer (Wallace and Gromit, Shaun the Sheep, way back to the Sledgehammer video), and the Bolexes also produced the great short The Saint Inspector.

Haven’t watched this since theaters. Blu-ray version 17 years later reinforces first impression that it’s pretty good. Man, Pixar has come a long way with 3D textures. Misfit inventor ant is exiled for causing havoc and getting the ants in trouble with the bully grasshoppers, finds help in the form of failed circus act, returns and fails to save the day but succeeds in convincing his fellow ants to stand up to oppression.

Oh no, I got behind on the blog and didn’t write about these.
I tend to forget shorts pretty fast, so I’m using web sources to recall which of these was which.

Me and My Moulton (Torill Kove)
Narrated memoir of three girls growing up in a normal town with not-normal parents – they are art and design obsessed, and when the kids ask for bicycles they finally get a weird one the proud parents have mail-ordered. Kove won best picture in 2006 for The Danish Poet.

Feast (Patrick Osborne)
We saw this before, playing with Big Hero 6, and I forgot to mention it then. Dog’s-eye-view of food, food, doomed human relationship, more food. Osborne worked on Bolt, Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph.

The Bigger Picture (Daisy Jacobs)
One of my favorite things: wall drawings and real objects interacting, 2D and 3D blending, like the drawn animations on paper-mache backgrounds in Rocks In My Pockets, or in a different sense, the dimension-based drama of Rabbit and Deer. But while I love the idea, it’s still a drab little story about fighting siblings and a dying parent.

A Single Life (Blaauw/Oprins/Roggeveen)
My favorite – also the shortest. Woman puts a 45 on the player, and finds that if she skips to different parts of the record, she travels to different times in her own life. IMDB claims the story was conceived on a drunken college night.

The Dam Keeper (Kondo & Tsutsumi)
Lonely pig runs the windmill that keeps the darkness at bay, but nobody in town loves or respects him so one day he lets the darkness in. Both directors worked on Pixar movies. This was cool, dark and imaginative, so naturally there’s talk of sequels and franchises and live-action remakes.

Sweet Cocoon (Bernard/Bruget/Duret/Marco/Puiraveau)
A student film, I think. A caterpillar is fat!

Duet (Glen Keane)
Keane has been in animation forever, was a lead character animator on many Disney features, and this is his first solo film. A boy is sporty, and a girl is graceful, and they like each other, all in one continual, fluid animation. Katy thought it reinforced oppressive gender roles, but that was before she saw the new Cinderella.

Footprints (Bill Plympton)
Moebius-strip footprint-following detective story.

Bus Story (Tali)
Another memoir, this time of a young woman who dreams of being a bus driver, so rents a shitty bus from its grumpy owner. Tali made La Pirouette, which I saw in 2002 and liked, though I can’t remember at all.

I guess it’s about two people with traumatic pasts who try to track down where their lives went wrong – but as I could tell from the trailer, it’s hard to say exactly what it’s about. One thing I wasn’t expecting: it opens with Swanberg/Wingard regular Amy Seimetz being kidnapped and force-fed a mind-control worm by a patient abductor who takes her home and gets her to sign over all her home equity, which he cashes and disappears.

In her shabby new life working at a signage shop, Amy is relentlessly courted by divorced ex-junkie Shane (our writer/director/etc) who tries to help her come to terms with her life. He has his own identity problems – she tells him stories and he fashions them into his own memories and tries to re-tell them to her. During the mutual-paranoid-freakout scene in a bathtub the movie started to remind me of Bug.

Elsewhere in the world, a pig farmer is somehow involved with the worm-brainwashed abductees and possibly the harvesting of new mind-control worms. Also he seems to be a sound recordist. Amy pieces together enough details to discover his farm and kill him, upon which they find documents on all the other kidnappees, and invite them all to the pig farm.

And I haven’t even mentioned these guys:

The above is a silly description of an entrancing movie.
This was a long time coming after Carruth’s great Primer.
Co-edited by David Lowery, whose Ain’t Them Bodies Saints made waves the same year.

Cinema Scope has an excellent interview with Carruth:

From a writing perspective, I don’t want these people to wake up and have a normal resolution. That’s impossible for me because that means that I understand all of this and have a morality lesson to explain to the audience. And I don’t. All I have is an exploration. So the characters can resolve their story in their own way, but that doesn’t stop the exploration for me.