Armchair Cinephile 

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Weirder Than Weird

O ne of my longstanding DVD wishes was answered recently, when Criterion released Steven Soderbergh's experimental mini-masterpiece Schizopolis. It's not for everyone, but it's definitely for me - and I'm convinced that there is an audience out there waiting to take this one-of-a-kind thing to heart.

Made on a shoestring right before the director made his big commercial/critical comeback, the film is clearly the work of a man with nothing to lose and only himself to please. It deconstructs conventions in a dozen different ways, it mocks its maker, and it dares the viewer to figure out what's going on. I don't know whether it's the funniest avant-garde film ever or the most experimental comedy, but it's a trip every fan of risk-taking cinema should take. With characters often speaking in gibberish, unsubtitled foreign languages, and generic descriptions of conversation instead of actual dialogue, it's easy to worry that there's nothing going on here; but there is a comprehensible story (albeit one that jumps around in time, involves out-of-body experiences, and requires plenty of non-sequiturs) for those willing to piece it together.

Working in a genre that's easier to get a grip on, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (Rhino) also goes so far that I'm astonished it ever got made. At some points little more than an Airplane!-style spoof of '50s monster movies, it isn't always a knee-slapper. But some of the moments in it are priceless: The sight of ordinary produce jumping out of the sink to maraud a housewife; the scene in which an elderly couple watches stoically as their kid is devoured; the unspeakably bad pop song that is the tomatoes' undoing.

Food products also go awry in the movies of one of the world's great animators. The Collected Shorts of Jan Svankmajer, Vol. 1 & 2 (Image) has two slabs of beef getting hot and heavy with each other, and later features a takeoff on Italian painter Giuseppe Archimboldo that puts an interesting spin on the idea of the eternally cyclical food chain. Called the "alchemist of the surreal" in an early anthology of his work, Svankmajer's stop-motion visions (not just of food, but of politics, literature, and more intimate human relations) have inspired most of the animators who came after him.

For the title alone, The Cars That Ate Paris (Home Vision) screams to be included here. The first feature from Peter Weir, it's a long way from the dignified Master and Commander; instead, it's a Twilight Zone premise, down-under-style: A tiny Aussie town (neither gay Paree nor Paris, Texas) makes a habit of trapping passing motorists and stripping down their cars, which the younger townfolk use for smash-up derbies. It takes a while to get its motor running, but it's an entertaining little tale.

Schizopolis (Criterion)
Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (Rhino)
The Collected Shorts of Jan Svankmajer, Vol. 1 & 2 (Image)
The Cars That Ate Paris (Home Vision)
Twister (Artisan)
Lon Chaney Collection (Warner Bros.)
I'm not sure Twister (Artisan - the 1990 film, not the later Helen Hunt/Bill Paxton blockbuster) ever quite gets going. But I have to dig this early Michael Almereyda effort a little bit for its use of Crispin Glover, who has never been more, well, Crispin-y than he is here. See him crack a bullwhip in a black turtleneck! See him at dinner in a double-breasted red velvet smoking jacket! See him play a painful guitar solo that Sonic Youth would envy! Just don't expect too much from the rest of the movie.

Coming full circle to weird movies that actually work: Warner Bros.' new two-disc, four-film Lon Chaney Collection includes the most amazing thing I've ever seen from the "man of a thousand faces." The Unknown, directed and co-written by Tod Browning (Dracula, Freaks) is an astonishing silent film that should be better known. Chaney plays - I kid you not - an armless man who has become a famous knife-thrower in the circus. Not only does he throw daggers, he drinks and smokes using his feet. Seeing Chaney pull off these tricks is fascinating enough, but the story's even better: Chaney is in love with his assistant, the woman (played by Joan Crawford) he throws knives at every night. She has hangups and is repulsed by the idea of a man touching her, and Chaney's limblessness makes him unthreatening in that department - but Crawford has no idea what's in store for her. You shouldn't either, so don't read anything more about the movie: Just watch it, and tell me it's not weird enough to rank with the cult-classic Freaks in Browning's filmography. •

More by John DeFore



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