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7. EL TOPO (1970) December 30, 2008

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AKA The Mole (literal translation)

“Q: You’re creating this story right now. 

A: Yes, this very moment.  It may not be true, but it’s beautiful.” -Alejandro Jodorowsky in “Conversations with Jodorowsky”

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DIRECTED BY: Alejandro Jodorowsky

FEATURING: Alejandro Jodorowsky

PLOT: El Topo, a figure dressed in black and carrying his nude son on horseback behind him, uses his supernatural shooting ability to free a town from the rule of the sadistic Colonel.  He then abandons his son for the Colonel’s woman, who convinces him to ride deep into the desert to face off against four mystical gunfighters.  All of the gunfighters die, but El Topo is betrayed, shot, and dragged into a cave by a society of deformed people, who ask the outlaw turned pacifist to help them build a tunnel so they can escape to a dusty western town run by degenerate religious fascists.

el-topo

BACKGROUND:

  • El Topo is considered to be the first “midnight movie,” the first movie to be screened in theaters almost exclusively after 12 AM.  Although the heyday of the midnight movie has past, it was a clever marketing gimmick that stressed the unusual nature of the film and positioned El Topo as an event rather than just another movie.
  • El Topo was famously championed and promoted by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
  • Due to an acrimonious dispute over ownership rights between Jodorowsky and Allen Klein, the film was withdrawn from circulation for 30 years, during which time it could only be seen on bootlegged VHS copies.  The scarcity of screenings vaulted El Topo‘s already powerful reputation into a legendary one.  Jodorowsky and Klein reconciled in 2004 and the film had a legal DVD release in 2005.

INDELIBLE IMAGEEl Topo is a continuous stream of unforgettable images; any frame chosen at random inflames the imagination.  My personal favorite is the lonsghot after El Topo kills third master gunfighter, where his body lies bleeding in his own watering hole while the rest of the landscape is littered with rabbit corpses.   The iconic image has been El Topo riding off on horseback with a child sitting behind him, naked except for a cowboy hat, holding a black umbrella over his head.  This image is particularly representative because it shows not only Jodorowsky’s gift for composition, but his penchant for shamelessly borrowing from other sources of inspiration: the concept is pinched from the most surreal moment of Sergio Leone’s classic Spaghetti Western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  In the first scene, a black clothed man carrying an

Original trailer for El Topo

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6. I’M A CYBORG, BUT THAT’S OK [SAIBOGUJIMAN KWENCHANA] (2006) December 22, 2008

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PLOT: Young-goon is a young woman who believes herself to be a cyborg, and is institutionalized after a gruesome and nearly deadly attempt to recharge her batteries.  Among the characters she meets in the mental hospital is Il-soon, a kleptomaniac who steals not only small items, but entire character traits from the other patients.  Young-goon enlists Il-soon’s aid to help her discover and complete her purpose as a cyborg, while he finds himself coming to care about her–and seeks to find a solution to her isolation that’s true to her delusion.  

i'macyborg

BACKGROUND:

  • I’m a Cyborg was director Chan-wook Park’s first film after completing his popular and ultra-violent “Vengeance Trilogy” [Sympathy for Mr. Vengance (2002), Oldboy (2003), and Lady Vengeance (2004)].   It was the #1 film in Korea in it’s opening week, but tanked quickly thereafter and ultimately became a box-office disappointment.
  • The idea for the movie came to Park after he had a dream about “bullets coming out of a girl’s body.”
  • The mail lead, Jeong Ji-Hoon, is a top Korean pop music star who records under the name “Rain.”  He makes his movie acting debut in Cyborg.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The audience-pleasing image is Young-goon sprouting jets from her ratty sneakers so she can elevate to kiss Il-soon.  The most enduring image, however, is the vision of Young-goon as a combat cyborg, with bullets shooting from her fingertips and spent shell casings ejecting from her open mouth. 

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  The main characters–a woman who self-destructs

Trailer for I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK

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CAPSULE: ADAPTATION (2002) December 16, 2008

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PLOTAdaptation tells two stories: in one, a “New Yorker” journalist (Meryl

adaptation

Streep) becomes obsessed with the subject of her nonfiction book, a trashy but passionate collector of orchids (Chris Cooper); in the other, a depressed screenwriter (Nicolas Cage) struggles to adapt her book “The Orchid Thief” into a movie, while fending off his chipper and vapid twin brother (also played by Cage), himself an ersatz screenwriter.

WHY IT’S NOT WEIRD ENOUGHAdaptation is a metamovie, the filmed equivalent of metafiction (a literary style where the real subject of the work is not the ostensible plot, but the work itself).  In Adaptation, screenwriter Charlie Kauffman (Being John Malkovich) inserts a fictionalized version of himself into the script, writing and rewriting it as the movie progresses.   Adaptation may appear unusual, and even weird to those who aren’t used to this kind of recursive style, but in the end it’s a purely intellectual exercise about the creative process.  There are mysteries here, indeed, but they reside entirely within the most rational lobes of our brainpan, and are completely resolved there. 

COMMENTSAdaptation sports perhaps the smartest script written in this young millennium, a story which twists and turns back upon itself with sly wit and playful intelligence.  (The screenplay was nominated by the Academy for “Best Adapted Screenplay”; it might have won if it had been properly nominated in the “Best Original Screenplay” category).  In addition, the acting by the three principals–toothless and trashy Chris Cooper as the orchid thief, Meryl Streep as a “New Yorker” journalist drained of passion, and Nick Cage as the twins, Charlie and Donald Kauffman–shows three veterans at the very peak of their games.   All three were nominated for Oscars, and Cooper won for “Best Supporting Actor.”   As good as Cooper was, it’s Cage’s magical performance as the writer paralyzed by artistic ambition and self-doubt, and also as his clueless doppelganger with the maddening Midas touch, that carries the film.  This is easily Cage’s best performance in a distinguished, if uneven, career. 

Despite the superlative script and performances, Adaptation falls just short of being an unqualified classic.  A minor issue is that the Orleans/Larouche counterplot–despite such welcome spectales such as Meryl Streep  trying to imitate a dial tone while tripping balls–pales beside the more intriguing internal struggle of poor Charlie Kaufmann; when that couple is on screen, we are anxious to get back to Cage throwing barbs at himself.   The other, somewhat more serious criticism, is that Adaptation is geared to a very specialized, artistic audience, and only resonates deeply with writers, movie reviewers and other highly creative types–and with the kind of film industry insiders who disdain jargon such as “industry” and “pitch.”

 WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:  “…an occasionally maddening and sometimes brilliant motion picture that varies between being insightfully sharp and insufferably self-indulgent…  I can’t imagine Adaptation having much mainstream appeal, but, for those who look for something genuinely off-the-wall in a motion picture, this will unquestionably strike a nerve.”  -James Berardinelli, Reel Views

CAPSULE: HABIT (1996) December 12, 2008

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PLOT:  Slacker and (barely) functional alcoholic Sam–still smarting from the habit

recent loss of his father and separation from his live-in girlfriend–finds his health growing worse and worse as he gets more and more involved with a mysterious beautiful woman he meets at a Greenwich Avenue Halloween party.

WHY IT’S NOT WEIRD ENOUGH:  Critics didn’t perceive or acknowledge Habit as a “weird” movie, but it is at least a little weird.  The movie is bifurcated into two parallel themes: essentially, it’s the story of Sam’s descent into alcoholic dementia, while ostensibly it’s a supernatural horror story.  It contains a few surrealistic moments (nude women posing on the streets of New York, a clock moving backwards), a dream sequence that’s redolent of Rosemary’s Baby (complete with yacht), and tons of that spiritual sister of weirdness, ambiguity.  Ultimately, the weirdest thing about Habit is the cinematography as Sam takes one of his frequent jaunts around Lower Manhattan: the camera bobs and weaves tipsily, causing us to see the bohemian atmosphere through Sam’s delirious eyes and giving the city a disorienting, Gothic cast.

COMMENTS:  Habit is a worthwhile effort, consistently interesting despite being relentlessly seedy and occasionally pretentious (in precisely the art/drama school dropout mold of its main characters).  The horror elements are definitely secondary, but they synergize well with the dramatic aspect of Sam’s pathetic story.  The literal narrative and the metaphorical aspects of the supernatural subplot merge so well, in fact, that the ambiguity about what “really” happens is simply irrelevant: either of the two possible interpretations is equally satisfactory, and entirely complementary. 

It’s somewhat surprising that Meredith Snaider apparently never acted in front of a camera after this role.  She did well in a difficult role, but more importantly, she has an intriguing beauty and a willingness to disrobe that should have brought her a lot more work in the film industry.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “Fessenden’s movie is a sly exercise in ambiguity. More than one explanation fits all of the events in the film, even those we see with our own eyes… ‘Habit’… in the subtlety of its ambiguity reveals ‘Lost Highway’ as an exercise in search of a purpose.” Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times