Tom Jolliffe looks at the weird wonders of cinema…
There are pretty standard films when it comes to cinema. It could be straight horror (masked killer stalks teens) or Die Hard formula (terrorists take over something, everyman hero stops them). Sometimes a film lowdown tells you everything you need to know about what you’re about to watch. To an extent this brings comfort to cinema goers. Look at the Top 100 highest grossing films and you’d be hard pressed to find anything hugely unconventional.
Of course you can have alien characters in strange alien worlds, but it’s still told in a conventional way. Star Wars for instance which at its core is pure, Kurosawa infused Samurai cinema or a film like Guardians of the Galaxy despite its talking raccoons and Groot, is a recognisable adventure formula. However, sometimes a film defies explanation, logic or understanding. Look at David Lynch’s career. He’s made a name off the back of being wilfully, delightfully odd, from films like Eraser Head, to Mulhullond Drive and Twin Peaks. See also Cronenberg (Videodrome, Spider, Scanners and more). Something about the odd and unexpected and unpredictable is exciting (and occasionally to some, off putting).
Japanese cinema is laden with great examples like the Tetsuo series, which began with Tetsuo: The Iron Man, which as succinctly as I can put it sees a man cursed and his flesh slowly transform into metal. You can also look at the cult horror (though placing it any genre is difficult given its inherent oddness) House. Just watch a trailer if you haven’t seen it. It’s wonderfully weird, random, visually exciting and enthralling (even if you feel like you’ve accidentally taken an LSD tab). Oddities like this with distinct visuals can be traced all the way back to the silent era. Think The Man In The Moon by George Meiles or The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari by Robert Wiene. How wondrous many of those images would have been to an audience back then. Like surrealist paintings brought to life.
The great unpredictability of cinema means that if you scour past the tent-pole predictability and safety you can find wonderful cult cinema. Often this cinema doesn’t quite take off. Sometimes it does if you look at much of the wondrously imaginative work of Studio Ghibli. Spirited Away which is so heavily stacked with creativity, imagination and bizarre ideas, somehow (through it’s perfect and charming delivery) just worked.
How about a British musical fantasy about a snooker grudge match? Billy The Kid and The Green Baize Vampire is a largely forgotten (until recent years) film that disappeared almost without trace upon release. It confined a British actor with a string of hits to his name, Phil Daniels, to struggling supporting actor in the following years. He emerged with similar presence and charisma as Gary Oldman, Tim Roth and Ray Winstone (crossing paths with all in several films). The snooker table seemed to derail his leading man legacy. In retrospect though, looking at the film (which I discovered recently), it’s got a lot to admire, from great visuals, great soundtrack and the sheer oddity of the premise (As well as some excellently campy performances from Daniels, Alun Armstrong and Bruce Payne). The writer was watching a match between Ray Reardon (dubbed Dracula because of his slicked back, jet black, receding hairline) and young (then) upstart Jimmy White. Somehow he dreamt up a film from this. Why? Who knows and upon it’s release at the very height of snookers popularity, it didn’t find an audience. Now though, the sheer weirdness of the film means it’s becoming a cult film.
A film can gain a level of weirdness purely by one pinch of something that dials it past eleven. Take Vampires Kiss. The idea, of someone believing they’re turning into a vampire, isn’t entirely odd, particularly if you were going to style it and structure it in the vein of conventional horror. So how do you make the film batshit? You throw in Nic Cage and tell him to go as crazy as he wants. The result is a film that was savaged and found no audience upon release. In post-modern world where meme and irony are king, audiences have rediscovered it and fallen in love (even if many of those have only seen the highlights reel). So unrepetently over the top as to be bordering on genius, Cage makes Vampires Kiss essential viewing, even if you may be left scratching your head as you try to compute what you’ve just watched.
A Clockwork Orange is certainly a film you could describe as unabashed in its weirdness. It became more readily identified for its controversial nature initially, but in time as the violence has been tamed by time, you can appreciate the artistic strangeness that Kubrick conjures. Some directors had a gift generally for the weird. John Waters, particularly when teamed with Divine, or Peter Greenaway (A Zed and Two Noughts, The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover). Andrzej Zulawski could also create weird and intense stories. Possession would be his most infamous work. A psycho-horror-drama littered with metaphor and allegory, but also bolstered by a truly exceptional performance from Isabelle Adjani who forsakes her husband in a crumbling marriage for a strange tentacled creature she keeps in an apartment. One scene in particular has become part of cinema legend, but if you haven’t seen the film seek it first, and watch it in context. For more Zulawski oddness see On The Silver Globe.
Occasionally it’s the ideas, sometimes its the visual pallette. Take The Fall, Tarsem Singh’s visually resplendent, relentlessly strange art film which has amassed a huge cult following (even if the narrative itself escapes some people). Animated film Fantastic Planet is also visually dazzling and downright bizarre. Certain visuals conjured on film show a level of creative thinking most can only dream of (as previously mentioned, see Studio Ghibli).
Still, this also further shows the almost limitless potential for cinema to stay fresh and original, but allowing film-makers to create as odd a vision as possible. Through the decades those creative spirits have sought to break the mode. Think Godard with his editing, or look at Chris Marker’s La Jetee, a cinematic masterpiece which completely pulled the rug out from the cinematic rulebook by playing a series of still photographs to tell the story. It’s almost akin to watching a boring uncles slide show from a cruiseship holiday, but remarkably Marker made it work (and sensibly opted for short film at 28 minutes). Every snap is an evocative, photographic masterpiece.
Raise a glass to cinematic weirdness. What’s the weirdest film you’ve ever seen? Let us know in the comments below.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has three features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019 and a number of shorts hitting festivals. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/