Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Essentials, Part 3: The Strange

          I've been asked over and over again what I find to be the strangest and darkest movies I've ever seen. Even though these sorts of lists will always be subjective, I find it even more subjective to list the weirdest movies I've ever seen. I mean, what I find strange could be something you find totally normal, and vice versa. So instead of just picking out movies that I find weird, I'm going to pull out, as I have before, films that I think used their bucking of trends and formulas to their advantages. These are the films that I would teach a class based around experimentation and a willingness to convey images and ideas not often associated with "the mainstream." In other words, this is probably the closest we're going to get to a list of my truly favorite films.

Un Chien Andalou (1929)

          Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali's famously bewildering 1929 short film relied heavily on Freudian free-association for its screenwriting and also relied on nightmarish images for its shoot. The film is probably most famous for its eye-slitting scene (pictured above), but I admire this film for going out of its way to freak out its audience. I would even go so far as to call this the first truly successful horror film of all time. Perhaps I am cheating by including this film, seeing as its a short  and all, but I really can't think of a better way to introduce experimental and surrealist filmmaking without subjecting a class full of students to Buñuel's madness. 

Freaks (1932)

          Tod Browning's infamous 1932 film put actual circus "freaks" front and center in the cast. This film came out before the Hollywood morality code, and because of this you'll see much more disturbing imagery and ideas in this film than any Hollywood film made in the 1940's or 1950's. Upon its release, Freaks some serious controversy for its unusual subject matter and frank depictions of deformity and human suffering. And, for 1932, this was an astoundingly bleak and original vision. Over the years, Freaks has achieved a strong cult following for both its subject matter and for the novelty of the time in which it was made. 

Cat People (1942)

          Jacques Tourneur made Cat People because he was fascinated by America's fear of female sexuality. The film focuses on Irena, a woman who is terrified by her own animalistic desires. Animals constantly call out to her. Sometimes she blacks out and has no idea where she was. She is afraid to sleep with her husband because of what might happen. Before long, Irena is transforming into a wild animal and killing whatever gets in her way. She cannot control her body or her thoughts. Tourneur's film is not only a landmark horror film with its willingness to let the true scares happen offscreen, but it is also perfect for a college class with all of its (for its time) progessive themes and ideas.

Pickup on South Street (1953)

          Many mid-twentieth century cult films play with the subject of human sexuality in obscure and interesting ways. Pickup uses the imagery of a pickpocket on the prowl as a symbol for men who steal women's hearts. It's not a subtle bit of artistry, but the film uses this motif in interesting ways. Skip, the pickpocket, steals Candy's wallet -- a wallet which just happens to hold important communist information--and begins a complicated game of cat and mouse. This is one of Sam Fuller's Noir exercises, and he uses the genre's German Expressionistic roots to his advantage. A simple espionage film turns into a statement about human sexuality and sexual politics in the 1950's.


          Fellini's films are often surreal, but few of them are able to implement their surrealist elements as organically as this film. A filmmaker struggles with the weight of expectation as he tries to film a movie that he has not yet written. He is surrounded by critics, reporters, and fans who all want to be a part of his newest masterpiece, but he has no idea how the movie will end. Fellini's film is a huge influence for the Cate Blanchett section of Todd Haynes's I'm Not There, and for good reason--this film is one of the great, uncompromising works of fiction that describes just how hard it is to live the life of the artist. 

Persona (1966)

          Persona not only plays with ideas surrounding identity and fame and mental illness, but the film itself is unusual in the way it was written, shot, and edited. The film concerns a mentally ill movie star who moves to a secluded island with a nurse. Most of the first half of the movie is a monologue from the nurse, who is trying to cut the silence left by the movie star with stories of her past. However, at the halfway point, the film switches focus. The film literally breaks, the identities switch, and confusion ensues. This film was a huge influence on the production of Robert Altman's 3 Women and David Lynch's Mulholland Drive.

Brazil (1985) 

          This film has nothing to do with Brazil, unless you count its soundtrack. Terry Gilliam's strange, surreal, and hilarious take on the future is one of the most unique film experiences that you can find. It is George Orwell seen through the lens of Franz Kafka. It is the nightmare of bureaucracy reaching its logical conclusion. The film concerns a case of mistaken identity that gets very, very out of hand. Gilliam's effects work mixed with his amazing ability to turn everything into a strange, dreamlike moment of surreality makes Brazil his crowning achievement.

Waking Life (2001)

          Richard Linklater has made his fair share conversation movies. These films are usually just focused on listening to people talk about interesting and strange things they've seen in their lives. Slacker and Before Sunrise are probably his most famous conversation movies. However, I find Slacker kind of tedious and annoying because it seems to only have on perspective and that perspective is quite young. With Waking Life, Linklater has matured a little bit and decided to let in all sorts of points-of-view. The subjects discussed range from talk about dreams and death to talk about cell regeneration and governmental ethics. It's all over the map, and it meanders with its deliberate pacing. Fortunately, on top of the engaging conversations is a fascinating rotoscope animation that keeps the visuals of the film fresh and dynamic.

Inland Empire (2006)

          If you've been keeping up with this blog for any amount of time, you'll know that I have a bit of a thing for David Lynch. And Inland Empire is, in my opinion, his greatest film. It is everything he has been working toward. He plays with identity, gender, fame, fiction, dreams, death, violence, betrayal, and love in this film with equal success. It is strange, scary, funny, and spellbinding. I believe there is no other film that could end a course on "weird" movies. This is the culmination of all the experiments that came before it.

What did I miss? What are some of your "strangest" films? 


  1. My definition of strange is probably a bit different than yours, but here are a few films that evoke strangeness for me: The Tenant (1976); The Reflecting Skin (1990); Prospero's Books (1991) or The Pillow Book (1996); and Synecdoche, New York (2008). I like your list, though--I need to watch or re-watch several of those films!

  2. All of Jacques Tourneur's films are great, especially Curse of the Demon. Of his RKO pictures, I'd place Cat People behind I Walked with a Zombie and ahead of The Leopard Man.

  3. My meaning of weird is likely somewhat not the same as yours, yet here are a couple of movies that summon abnormality for me: The Occupant (1976); The Reflecting Skin (1990); Prospero's Books (1991) or The Pad Book (1996); and Synecdoche, New York (2008). I like your rundown, however - I have to watch or re-watch a few of those movies!
    Artificial intelligence