The Celluloid Highway's # 1 Bizarro Film: EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL (Werner Herzog, West Germany, 1970)
The films of Werner Herzog (both fiction and non-fiction) abound with strange and surreal imagery (usually involving animals) that it is hard to imagine any list of weird or bizarre movies without an entry for this very idiosyncratic Bavarian filmmaker. Although he remade the silent expressionistic horror classic Nosferatu in 1979, it is this his second feature film that most effectively approximates the disorder, anarchy and sense of unease of horror. That few films within the horror genre itself succeed in this is a testament to the difficulty of pulling off such a feat. Herzog partially succeeds through the casting - this is a film in which every part is played by those suffering from dwarfism. This immediately situates us in territory that is unusual - with the ever present spectre of possible exploitation making this a very unsafe and troubling viewing experience. Herzog’s first feature film Signs of Life (1968) had received much critical acclaim on the festival circuit (even managing to secure the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Awards) so few would have been prepared for this peculiar comedy of manners with the oppressive atmosphere of slowly encroaching horror. The film is set in an unnamed institution that has the feel of a correctional facility. No explanation is given as to why the inhabitants are there, and very little is offered as to why they suddenly decided to rebel against the authority of the institution. The important thing is that they do rebel - because this is an allegory of liberation, and easily one of the most overtly political statements Herzog has ever made. That there is no overpowering evidence that the inhabitants are oppressed only adds to the disturbing ways in which the rebellion manifests itself. Before long this particular act of insurgence is perverted and becomes depraved and chaotic. A crucified monkey offers a disconcerting image of religious symbolism toward the end, and the kneeling camel is equally disquieting. Herzog’s passion for circularity is in evidence as a car goes round and round in circles offering a bleak statement on the futility of the behaviour we are seeing. This is all married to weird ethnic and tribal music, black and white cinematography, and the desolate volcanic landscape of Lanzarote (it appears here long before this became a popular tourist destination). This film is very hard work indeed. Its weirdness is palpable from the outset, but should you persevere and reach the end credits you’ll have experienced a profound but challenging essay on prejudice, difference, tolerance and a gloomy fable about the various political rebellions in the world at the time.
The Film Connoisseur’s #1 Bizarro Film: GUMMO (Harmony Korine, U.S.A., 1997)
It’s interesting that a lot of the films we’ve mentioned on this countdown have had some similarities in them. One of them is that films of this nature almost never subscribe to the tired and true linear way telling a film. These filmmaker’s are rebellious in nature, rejecting the common way in which things are done. This is partially the reason why I love these kinds of films. They break the norm, go against the rules and do things in an entirely different way. Gummo, my #1 Bizarro film is this kind of film. It’s episodic in nature, and feels so real that you don’t feel like you are watching actors or a traditional movie at all. You feel like you are watching, ugly, real life. Harmony Korine’s Gummo is about young kids trying to survive in a suburban white thrash nightmare. People on this film are living in the most poverty stricken conditions you can imagine! Korine’s film garnered a lot of criticism because it showed these characters doing truly insane things under the nastiest, ugliest most inhuman conditions. Yet, this is precisely the reason why I admire this film so much. I mean, why hide this type of thing from the world? These kinds of people exist in the U.S.A. These kinds of neighborhoods are out there in Middle America. Some might choose to ignore this fact, like an ugly family secret, but me, I’m all about exposing the truth about things, making people wake up! The interesting part about this movie is that director Harmony Korine opted to film in a real poor neighborhood in Nashville Tennessee; and he chose real people to appear in the film. Only three real actors were used in the making of the film (Including Korines then girlfriend Chloe Sevigny) , the rest are real people from his home town. As a result of this most of the situations you see in Gummo are not scripted or even rehearsed, so they feel more genuine. This is the kind of film that makes you wonder if what you are seeing was scripted or if it really happened on camera. The answer is that it’s a mix of both. Sometimes Korine would just let the cameras role and let the magic happen right in front of them. I admire Korine for this because when you watch Gummo, you never wonder off or get bored, you remain glued to the screen for its whole duration. You know what they say: “sometimes truth is stranger than fiction” and this is precisely the case with Gummo. A lot (and I do mean a lot) of what you see on screen is improvised. These are real people, talking real things. Korine wanted to capture poverty and mental instability in its purest form, and I honestly think he succeeded. The characters in Gummo live under such dire conditions that they end up doing the strangest things, like hunting cats to sell them to a local restaurant, spending their money on sniffing glue. These characters are not characters with clear cut moral values, these are individuals with problems, individuals willing to do anything to survive. This is the kind of film that people actually walked out of during its presentation on the Telluride Film Festival. Apparently, people can’t take the truth! It is a sad world we live in when a film that is sincere and truthful, is rejected. Yes the film touches some very strong themes, but hey, that’s life, and life isn’t always pretty. Aside from all these ugly truths that the film exposes, the film is so visually interesting! There is beauty amongst all the filth and violence. The colors, the look of the characters, the dialog, you can tell a talented filmmaker is behind the camera orchestrating everything. It is that kind of movie that is both repulsive and beautiful to look at. It will most likely get an immediate response out of you. It isn’t concerned with pleasing anybody, it simply wants to show life the way it is. Gummo defies you to accept that. It is shocking, it is ugly, but it’s honest at heart.
Well, thats it boys and girls. I hope you have enjoyed this countdown. It wasnt easy coming up with top five bizarre movies, and a lot of films were left out, but rest assured, another blog post on "bizarre films" will appear soon that speaks about all the other films that were left out. Films were left out not because they werent bizarre or good, but just because there are so many good ones! So look out for that future post.
This countdown was done in collaboration with Shaun Aunderson's excellent film review blog The Celluloid Highway, dont forget to visit his blog and check it out, its worth it! Also, I want to thank Shaun for participating on these countdowns which I personally find extremely fun and informative. Thanks Shaun! And thanks to all those who commented on our choices and offered up some suggestions of their own.
For part 2 of the Top Five Bizarro Films Countdown CLICK HERE!