Friday Night Seitz
Slide show: From "Yellow Submarine" to "Inland Empire," the films that bend reality -- and blow your mind
10. “Fantasia” (1940)
Directed by Walt Disney
“Fantasia” is a series of short films linked together by the framing story of an orchestra performing a concert (the conductor is Leopold Stokowski). The films within the film are hypothetical visions occurring in the mind’s eye of the listener. But because the mind’s eye in question belonged to Disney, the screen was filled with Disney imagery unmoored from a story — an experimental film in kid-flick drag. It was all about how the music interacted with the images — so precisely that it was as if the two art forms, instrumental performance and animation, were dancing together. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The mushrooms. The centaurs. The dancing hippos. The volcanos. The dinosaurs. The demon. Parts of it are silly or cloying. Other parts are terrifying. And almost all of it is staggeringly beautiful. “Fantasia” was the first (and so far only) Walt Disney film to prompt viewers to ask, “What am I looking at?” and “What does it mean?” It’s the Disney movie as powerful hallucinogen. For kids.
9. “The Last Movie” (1971)
Directed by Dennis Hopper
As I wrote in a piece about Dennis Hopper’s directorial career, “The Last Movie” is the filmmaker’s “purest, weirdest work — the first film he ever wanted to make, and the one that nearly destroyed his career. Hopper, who co-wrote the script with ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ screenwriter Stewart Stern, plays Kansas, a movie stuntman who rides onto the set of a western shot on location in Peru. (Samuel Fuller plays the director.) The hero stays behind after the shoot is finished, drinks, takes part in a cockamamie scheme to find gold and finance a mining operation, drinks, plays house with a gorgeous native, shtups the bored wife of a potential investor, drinks some more, then returns to the village where the film was shot and finds that the movie’s story line and production processes have become part of the villagers’ religion. The villagers, commanded by a resident who has anointed himself ‘director,’ reenact the Hollywood movie’s story line with wicker facsimiles of cameras, tripods and boom mics, entrapping the alienated Kansas as their movie star-cum-Christ figure and forcing him to reenact a violent narrative that ends with a spectacular death scene. The film’s bizarre and lovely climax is a musical montage showing Kansas embracing (and repeatedly replaying) his demise.”
“This is a film whose vision is eclectic and expansive enough to include old fashioned western movie shootouts, nightclub musical numbers, dense Catholic symbolism, meta-commentary on cinema’s ability to propagate ideology, a soft-core interlude beneath a waterfall, several John Cassavetes-style ugly drunken arguments, and a borderline Mel Brooks moment in which a montage of Kansas wandering a local marketplace is intercut with Kris Kristofferson performing ‘Me and Bobby McGee‘ on location in Peru. At the end of the sequence, Hopper cuts to Kansas finishing a journey on horseback that we’d seen him begin near the start of the film; Kristofferson addresses Kansas directly and tells him he’s wanted on the set.”
8. “A Zed and Two Noughts” (1986)
Directed by Peter Greenaway
Twin zoologists lose their wives in a car accident caused by a swan; the driver is a woman whose leg is damaged so badly that it has to be amputated. The zoologists become obsessed with studying decay, and their fascination becomes the movie’s. The brothers are determined to understand what it means to be mortal. They start by photographing an apple, then work their way up to snails; after a while you start to see where all this is headed. The images are unsettling. So is the plot, which finds the twins becoming involved with the amputee; the plot takes a Lynchian, or David Cronenbergian, turn when a doctor advises the woman to have her other leg cut off to relieve stress on her spine and “because it looked so sad all alone,” then starts using her to re-create Vermeer paintings. There’s also a prostitute named Venus de Milo. Peter Greenaway’s highly stylized drama encourages the viewer to fixate on recurring images (plant and animal life in decay) and overt symbols that might foreshadow the plot or unlock the movie’s symbolic architecture — if it were possible to discern exactly what they’re supposed to mean, anyway. It’s a puzzle movie, a fetish object, a series of tableaux with characters moving through them, and a study of a world that’s continuously being destroyed and regenerated. Or as Greenway himself put it, “It’s an examination of the world as a zoo.”
7. “Yellow Submarine” (1968)
Directed by George Dunning and Dennis Abbey
This cartoon that sends John, Paul, George and Ringo on a mission to defeat the Blue Meanies and restore color to Pepperland is easily the trippiest movie the Beatles were ever (loosely) associated with. The entire movie is a psychedelic lark with music. It’s only faintly connected to the laws of physics or to anything resembling traditional storytelling logic. The images themselves seem to be in a constant state of flux; characters change height, shape, proportion, color or design and suddenly merge with other character or objects, and merge with (or emerge from) what you mistakenly thought was the background. A multicolored aligator toddles through the frame with a “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” drum kit on its back. “Yellow Submarine” links the group’s anarchic, whimsical streak to 1960s Pop Art, underground comics and experimental films, and to early Surrealist visual art and filmmaking. The musical numbers are always lively and frequently stunning — especially “Eleanor Rigby,” which, more than any other sequence in the film, feels like a series of 1960s album covers come to life. And some of the verbal exchanges are Marx Brothers-worthy.
George: Maybe time’s gone on strike.
Ringo: What for?
George: Shorter hours.
Ringo: I don’t blame it. Must be very tiring being time, mustn’t it?
George, John, Paul: Why?
Ringo: Well, it’s a 24-hour day, isn’t it?
John: You surprise me, Ringo.
John: Dealing in abstracts.
6. “Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance” (1982)
Directed by Godfrey Reggio
You could describe almost any movie on this list as a film that demands to be seen on a big screen, but the phrase holds especially true for “Koyaanisqatsi,” which might be the most accessible and thrilling experimental film ever made, as well as one of the best demonstration of the associative art of montage. Its power resides entirely in its strikingly composed images, in its bold speed-shifts (alternating, slow, fast and regular motion) and in its genius in cutting from one shot to another in ways that make us compare the textures and motions of organic and inorganic subjects.
The title is a Hopi word that supposedly translates as “Life out of balance”; a lot of viewers interpret that in terms of an environmental statement, and the film does contrast the harsh, angular geometry of the man-made world against the ineffable splendor of nature. But the movie is more than a message; it’s an experience, a series of Socratic questions posed through images and sounds, and it goes well beyond saying, “Look what we’ve done to nature, isn’t it awful?” The shots of highways, transformer towers, skylines and other man-made vistas are as splendidly photographed as the images of rivers, mountains and plains. (Philip Glass, the master of existential dread, did the score — one of his best.)
There is beauty and terror in every shot, and poetry. The scudding clouds casting their shadows on the land and appearing upside-down and reversed in the glass skins of office towers connect with the time-lapse images of automobiles racing and then stopping, racing and then stopping, and these in turn connect with the time-lapse shots of humans streaming through subway stations, building lobbies and busy thoroughfares, like platelets coursing through arteries. Humanity is a part of nature. Everything is connected.
5. “Inland Empire” (2006)
Directed by David Lynch
What? Of all the David Lynch movies I could have picked, why “Inland Empire,” a film about filmmaking starring Laura Dern as an actress who begins to feel that her life resembles, or is becoming, the film she’s currently shooting? Why not “Eraserhead” or “Dune” or “Blue Velvet” or “Mulholland Dr.” or, well, anything else?
Answer: Except perhaps for his gentle character study “The Straight Story,” every David Lynch movie is in some sense “trippy,” and rather than fill multiple slots on this list with Lynch movies — or list nothing else except Lynch movies, which I could easily have done — I decided to ask which of his films is, at its core, the trippiest, by which I mean the most unconventional and bold overall. I picked “Inland Empire” because it represents the culmination (so far) of a significant evolution in Lynch’s work. From “Eraserhead” through “Wild at Heart,” Lynch placed surreal or expressionist imagery at the heart of conventionally structured narratives; when “dreamy” or “trippy” things happened, there were often brackets around them, or markers affixed to them: “dream sequence” or “hallucination” or “supernatural event” or “glimpse of another dimension,” or some such. These brackets and markers helped orient the viewer, and acted as counterweights to the bizarre, whimsical or horrific images.
But starting somewhere around “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” Lynch’s movies started to uncouple themselves from the obligation to identify the “unreal” or otherwise unnerving parts, and Lynch started making movies where narrative itself was untrustworthy; the movies would lull you into thinking they were at least paying lip service to conventional, commercial filmmaking technique. But then at a certain point you’d realize that something was hinky — that the story you thought you were being told wasn’t the one Lynch was actually telling, that indeed the movie itself was less a story than a series of situations and insinuations and archetypes that hung together only in terms of dream language.
You can see this tendency becoming more and more pronounced throughout the second half of Lynch’s directorial career. From “Fire Walk With Me” through “Lost Highway” and “Mulholland Dr.,” the films become slippery, more unstable. The super-low-budget digital video feature “Inland Empire” actually seems to be disintegrating or spiraling into madness as you watch it, both visually and plotwise, spinning out of control, looping back on itself, folding into itself, imploding, exploding, contracting again and then finally cooling and cohering … but into what? In the beginning you think he’s giving you something to grab onto, but he isn’t. It’s a long, slow, pitiless fall into an emotional and spiritual abyss, capped by one of the most ecstatic dance numbers of the last decade. It’s like having a dream that becomes another dream, then another dream, then another, each new phase maintaining a tenuous connection to the last.
And, oh yes: the rabbits.
4. “Eaux D’Artifice” (1953)
Directed, shot and edited by Kenneth Anger
Director Kenneth Anger is known for the edgier aspects of his talent — his fondness for rock ‘n’ roll and the occult, his groundbreaking depiction of homoerotic imagery, and his fascination with glamour and scandal. (He also wrote the bestselling tabloid history “Hollywood Babylon.”) But he is also a brilliant filmmaker whose best work has the formal precision of a mosaic tile mural or a gigantic stained-glass window. “Fireworks,” “Lucifer Rising” and “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome” could all have taken this spot on my list. I’m giving it to “Eaux D’Artifice” because it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, inside or outside a movie theater.
There is no “story,” just a series of blue-tinted images, but each one is arresting. A woman in what appears to be an ornate 17th century gown and headdress wanders amid a garden of fountains, her progress through space intercut with close-ups of water flowing, gushing, rising and falling. It could be a metaphor for the transitory nature of civilization, or of life itself, or a mythological vision of femininity (in some ways it feels like the flip side of the comic-epic macho imagery in Anger’s gay fantasia “Fireworks”). Anger’s movies are rarely shown on big screens anywhere but in college classrooms and museums, and that’s too bad. They’re spectacular. The low resolution of YouTube doesn’t do them justice. You can order them through Netflix, and they’re also available on DVD.
3. “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi epic is a parable of evolution and the limits of imagination, and a portrait of the banality and tedium of human existence, made comic by its juxtaposition with dazzling shots of astronauts, spaceships, planets and suns turning like mobiles in space. But more than anything else, it’s a journey, not just to “Jupiter and beyond the infinite,” as the final chapter’s title card puts it, but beyond the boundaries of one’s own body, into the mind of the filmmaker. The film runs 142 minutes, and an amazing percentage of it unfolds without dialogue, or even sound effects. From the opening image of the sun rising from behind the aligned planets of our solar system to the “Blue Danube” docking sequence, the voyage into the monolith, and the final shot of the ascendant Star Child, “2001″ gives us image after image worth staring at, absorbing, contemplating, living in — and it holds the shots long enough to make time itself seem elastic, then abstract, and finally as insignificant as that shot of murdered astronaut Frank Poole’s body spiraling amid the stars. The movie is, as one of its posters promised, “The ultimate trip.”
2. “Dog Star Man: Prelude and Parts I-IV” (1962-64)
Directed, shot and edited by Stan Brakhage
Stan Brakhage’s silent home movies are quick-cut, quicksilver records of the director’s restless imagination. They’re all playful, beautiful, baffling, engaging and at times impenetrable — intentionally so — and they’re so similar in technique that it’s tempting to consider each of them a part of one very long film, a life’s work, a continuous act of dreaming. But I’m partial to “Dog Star Man” (1962), because it’s the first Brakhage movie I ever saw — a no-budget epic about the rise and fall of man, as told through a torrent of abstract or figurative imagery.
Brakhage scratched the film, drew on it, poked it with pins, lightly burned it, drew on it with pans and paint and markers, shot at regular speed and in slow and fast motion, double- and triple-exposed it, and cut the results together with caught images of rain puddles and muddy grass, eclipses and solar flares, scudding clouds, trees and leaves and insects, his wife’s body and his child’s birth. The opening section in particular reminds me of the creation sequence in “The Tree of Life.” It’s as if some science fictional scientist had devised a camera that could go inside the human imagination and photograph thoughts being born, synapses exploding around them like fireworks. “Dog Star Man” can be analyzed and deconstructed nine ways from Wednesday. But it it also art-as-object, something you can look at, contemplate, project yourself into. It’s a spectacle, a trip. Shapes, splotches of color, pulses of light, glimpses of faces and bodies and landscapes tumble through screen space, displacing each other, merging with each other, clinging together and then flying apart. You find yourself thinking: What am I looking at? Is it a sparkler going off, or some kind of animation? Is that the sun, or the moon, or the pupil of an eye? Is that a swirl of blood and tissue or the eddies in the surface of a can of paint? What does it mean? Does art have to “mean” anything? Can it just be beautiful?
“Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of movement and innumerable gradations of color,” Brakhage wrote in his manifesto “Metaphors on Vision.” “Imagine a world before the ‘beginning was the word.’”
1. “Porky in Wackyland” (1938)
Directed by Robert Clampett
The opening credits of this mind-effing short end when a newsboy steps in front of the text, crows, “Ex-tree! Ex-treee!” and holds up the front page of a paper. The headline says, “PORKY HUNTS RARE DO-DO BIRD WORTH 4000,000,000,000. P.S. 000,000,000.” Our intrepid porcine hero flies tiny plane over Dark, Darker and Darkest Africa and finally comes to Wackyland. In a field of towering mushrooms, Porky is menaced by a huge, fanged beast who suddenly starts traipsing about like a toddler, pealing, “La la la! La la la!” A crazy-eyed rabbit swings from a swing hanging in space. A convict sticks his head through the bars of a free-floating window and begs to be let out. A duck’s head attached to two immense legs with giant feet hops around beneath an upside-down “HELLO” sign. A giant with huge shoulders and stick legs rises up from behind an igloo; his three heads are modeled on Moe, Larry and Curly. They’re speaking gibberish.
The do-do finally emerges from inside a moated castle emblazoned with a neon sign that says, “The DO-DO,” and just in case you can’t read, an unseen announcer proclaims, “The do-do!” The bird sputters across the moat in a small boat, docks it, and tosses and anchor overboard; the anchor drags the boat down to the bottom of the moat. “Are y-y-y-y-y-you really the, uh, the uh, last of the do-dos?” Porky asks it. “Yes,” it replies, getting right up in Porky’s face. “I really am the last of the do-dos! Vo-do-dee-oh, food-dee-oh, vo-do-dee-oh!!”
Every Friday, Salon writer Matt Zoller Seitz sifts through beloved classics and obscure indies for a slide show that sheds light on the hidden connections and most fascinating moments in film and TV history.