Hi, welcome back to another guest edition of Reagan’s Recs. This month’s guest is Levi, a friend who I met in the Leighton Night with Brian Wecht discord server. I very quickly realized that Levi really, really loves movies and is a joy to talk to about them, especially when it comes to Lynch.
So it makes sense that he came up when I was thinking of potential guests for this column. After all, what is this if not a forum to discuss the films we love? Rather than go on and on I’ll instead leave it to Levi, who is very cool and who I love very much. Enjoy!
Hi, my name is Levi. I live a silly little life and I watch a lot of movies. I occasionally like to write about movies, too – I enjoy sharing my opinions and interpretations. I may not be able to promise you elegance, but today I can promise you a hearty dose of bewilderment.
Cinema has a lot of power. It can be used to educate; to inspire; to propagandize. Cinema can tell us a lot about the collective consciousness of a culture or time period. The best thing cinema can do, however, is confuse. Sure, a filmmaker can pour their blood, sweat, and tears into creating a film that will satisfy audiences, or challenge their expectations. But nothing can beat a film that leaves the audience absolutely dumbfounded.
I love walking away from a movie without a single clue as to what just unfolded. I want to be left to put the pieces together myself. I want to be tossing and turning all night, haunted by the movie’s imagery. I want to be purely perplexed, fully at the will of a filmmaker’s deeply strange vision. Today, lovely readers, I’d like to share with you a small handful of films that fit comfortably under this sprawling umbrella of confounding cinema.
Forbidden Zone (1980) Dir. Richard Elfman
I am endlessly fascinated by the early days of famous Hollywood composer Danny Elfman. While he may be best known for the theme song to The Simpsons, or for his collaborations with Tim Burton, his most consistently overlooked work is his time as the frontman of 80s new wave band Oingo Boingo. Both Elfman and Boingo have their origins in the 1970s Los Angeles theatre troupe The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, formed by Danny’s older brother Richard. They would dress up like clowns, perform Cab Calloway covers and play handmade instruments. It’s cool as heck.
In the late 70s, Richard Elfman wanted to move on from music to pursue film projects. While passing the theatre troupe onto Danny, he decided to create a film as a sendoff to Mystic Knights, which would be compressed down to a troupe of up to 15 people to an 8 piece rock band during production of the film. The film in question was Forbidden Zone and it turned out to be absolutely nuts. If INLAND EMPIRE is like a nightmare, Forbidden Zone is like a fever dream. There’s a frog butler, a portal to the sixth dimension through some intestines, a school teacher with a machine gun, and Danny Elfman as Satan performing a reworked version of Cab Calloway’s famous song Minnie the Moocher.
I’m hesitant to write much about the content of the film itself because it’s a fantastic ride when you have no idea what’s happening. It’s far from a perfect film – I think it’s important to acknowledge the multiple short scenes including an actor in blackface, which is incredibly uncool and unnecessary. I wouldn’t call it irredeemable, however. I have a lot of admiration for the way it constantly one-ups itself in its absurdity all the way until the credits roll. Flawed masterpiece? Who am I to say – I’ll highly recommend it anyway.
INLAND EMPIRE (2006) Dir. David Lynch
Your experience watching a David Lynch movie is wholly dependent on what point you’re jumping into his oeuvre. For some, the name “David Lynch” brings to mind visions of coffee, cherry pie, and small-town mystery. For others, the name might conjure thoughts of physically deformed babies and vast industrial landscapes. Lynch’s work, while regularly touching on overlapping themes and ideas, covers a lot of ground. It’s always fun to see peoples’ reactions when they hear he directed a Disney film.
INLAND EMPIRE is Lynch’s final feature film to date, and it’s also the most impenetrable and obtuse piece of art he’s put out. I mean that in a loving way. Aside from the fact it runs for three full hours, it’s a film composed of jarring nonsequiturs and – let’s say – challenging cinematography. Before you ask, of course this film features anthropomorphic rabbits who speak entirely in cryptic statements punctuated by sitcom canned laughter. What good film doesn’t?
Shot entirely on a handheld Sony camcorder without a finished screenplay, INLAND EMPIRE can only be described as a real nightmare. It’s invasive, jagged, and messy. Laura Dern, playing the “woman in trouble” Nikki Grace, is endlessly pursued by the audience, from modern-day Los Angeles to the streets of 1930s Lodz, Poland. Dern’s performance is nothing less than emotionally draining, through claustrophobic closeups of her yelling and crying and the constant uncertainty whether Nikki Grace herself is acting or if we’re seeing her reality. It’s, uh, a lot. It’s a film of existential horror and dread… if you can submit yourself to the experience and suspend your urge to piece together a coherent narrative. Many things are simply going to happen, and if you can follow along in the moment, you might really enjoy this precarious mess of a film.
Love Exposure (2008) Dir. Sion Sono
How could I possibly explain a film like Love Exposure? Anything I say here will only be scratching the surface of how much is jam-packed into this weird, weird film. Very broadly, though, Love Exposure is a four-hour-long movie about a cross-dressing upskirt photographer who falls in love. It’s also an incredibly complex picture of religion, perversion, and family – taking place at the intersection of all three. As I’ve said in the past, Sion Sono has an incredible talent for iterating on himself. This is at its most striking here, where he has four hours to develop his characters and narrative. Subtle changes in a relationship or a character have an abundance of time to develop slowly.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult for a lot of people (myself included) to simply dedicate four hours of undivided attention to a piece of media. It’s Love Exposure’s fatal flaw. All I can say is that not only do I guarantee it’s worth it, but that you’ll be hooked from the beginning. It’s the fastest four hours of media you’ll ever see. The film is not only in a constant state of change, evolving and one-upping itself, it’s also wholeheartedly engaging from start to finish. While the previous films I’ve talked about have been very surreal, Love Exposure is more so situationally jarring. It fits in with the others so concretely because it’s shocking how unique and far-reaching it is. The film is transgressive, violent, perverted, genius, and, above all, deeply confusing. In a good way.
“Jesus, I approve of you as the only cool man besides Kurt Cobain.”
House (1977) Dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi
I’m always very wary of a film labeled “comedy horror.” There are some gems out there, but too often it seems to be used as a way to excuse poor writing or minimal effort. What is important is striking a balance, finding the correct intersection between what are – on the surface – two conflicting styles and ideologies, and mixing the two accordingly. Even when there is passion behind the project, comedy horror often still fails because it doesn’t know how to mix the two properly.
With that in mind, House is incredibly impressive – it’s comedy-horror at its finest and absolutely masterfully blended. A deeply surreal horror movie that can often be hilarious in its absurdity? That’s my bread and butter. Not only does the piano with teeth from Super Mario 64 make an appearance, but you can also spot a flying disembodied head and an evil cat, too! It’s unapologetically bizarre – director Nobuhiko Obayashi once recalled that Toho allowed him to direct the film as they were tired of losing money on comprehensible films, and they felt House was incomprehensible. I can’t blame them, but I also think that doesn’t give the film enough credit.
Obayashi drew inspiration from the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (as seemingly a lot of Toho films do,) to which he lost his childhood friends. Additionally, it’s not a stretch to say that House is one of the most visually captivating films I’ve ever seen. Rather than striving for a level of realism that simply wouldn’t have been possible with the effects of the time, the film employs a wonderful mix of practical effects and uncanny, purposefully unrealistic special effects. The end result is a visual style that is wholeheartedly unique, even 40 years later. As a comedy film, as a horror film, and as an incomprehensible hallucination, I highly recommend House.
At Land (1944) Dir. Maya Deren
I simply love a film that feels like a dream. The rules of continuity shift and the world becomes open and boundless, free to explore. At Land is a silent short film from avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren, who stars in it on top of writing and directing. We follow Deren into a dream, from the beach she wakes up on, to a dinner party where the Immortal Game of chess is played. An abundance of gorgeous shots push us deeper, deeper, and deeper still into this mythical world. All the while, we’re experiencing it alongside her. Her subtle changes in facial expression give us hints of emotion where music or dialogue cannot (in their total absence.)
Deren has stated that the film is about the struggle to maintain one’s identity, and I feel this is a fantastic lens to view it through. As with any piece of surreal cinema (or, indeed, any cinema at all,) building your own interpretation of what you’ve seen is much more important than exclusively taking the artist at their word. You’re more likely to take something away from the experience when you build your own understanding of the events and how they connect.
All that said, At Land is fantastic when viewed as a struggle with identity. I think that anyone who has struggled with coming to terms with or understanding their identity will be able to relate to this film, in an abstract way. Deren’s journey, climbing a fallen tree or literally dragging herself across a long dinner table, might parallel the mental turmoil many of us have pulled ourselves through as we learn to accept ourselves. In that sense, I think At Land is incredibly important viewing – even if, indeed, it can be confusing in its imagery. And, hell, it’s 15 minutes long. That’s intensely watchable.
With art, “what happened” isn’t important. What matters is what you believe happened. When a filmmaker breaks free from the obligation to be coherent, they allow for a wealth of interpretation from viewers. The true story, the real message, meaning, or moral is dictated by your own response to what you saw and, in a way, your own life experiences. The films on this list just represent a small handful of examples of how beautiful film can be when nothing is making any sense.