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Posts Tagged ‘Social Satire’

The Crazy Family (1984)

Friday, January 25th, 2013

Sogo Ishii’s The Crazy Family (1984) is one of the best Japanese films you’ve never seen.

As Steven Puchalski wrote – in part – of the film in 1994, ten years after the film’s release, “not many people caught this pitch-black comedy when it was released in the United States — no surprise since its New York City engagement consisted of a one-week run at an upscale arthouse theatre, and a sparse, thoroughly confused audience of blue-haired Upper West Siders. Though still unavailable on video, I’d like to give it my vote as one of the most genuinely demented movies to ever emerge from Japan. Directed by Sogo Ishii [who subsequently changed his name to Gakuryu Ishii] this was his first feature film to be picked up by an American distributor [New Yorker Films, who subsequently went out of business, leaving the film in limbo].

Mixing sledgehammer social satire with rapid-fire cinematic dementia, this is an unforgettable excursion into the darkest recesses of his culture’s middle-class values, as well as a precursor to such ’90s cult hits as Tetsuo: The Iron Man. [Utterly] unrelenting, The Crazy Family focuses on the outwardly-sane Kobayashi family. They’re an Asian bourgeois [family unit], complete with a successful dad, a loving wife, and two well-adjusted children. To top it off, they’ve just moved into their suburban dream home. Sounds perfect? Not for long. Because soon their unwanted grandfather moves in, white ants are discovered feasting on the woodwork, tempers begin to percolate, and the family’s oft-mentioned “sickness” takes over, which sends our happy Nuclear Unit spinning headfirst into a series of comic obsessions.

Father begins digging up the floorboards and spreading toxic bug poison; the straight-laced mother does an impromptu striptease for her ever-more-paranoid hubbie; and the daughter practices for her unlikely pop star career. Meanwhile, the son crams for his Tokyo University entrance exams by turning his room into a high-tech nightmare, complete with electrodes, glowing pyramids, and a handy knife which he stabs himself with in order to stay awake.

The household hostilities escalate and soon the place becomes a full-scale battlefield — the family armed with mothballed World War II weapons, a chainsaw, even a baseball bat with the family dog strapped to it. [Grandfather] goes so far off the deep end that he takes his pre-pubescent granddaughter hostage. In between the various fires and explosions, Ishii makes scathingly hilarious points about life in modern-day Japan, where socially-programmed perfection and technological advances have taken their toll on a new generation. Imagine a movie that begins like [an episode of the 1950s Cold War television series] Father Knows Best, turns into a mass-hysteria mix of The Shining meets The Simpsons, edited like a Road Runner cartoon [. . .] and you have The Crazy Family.”

I was lucky enough to see this film in a theater when it first came out, and it absolutely amazed me; so much so that I went right back in and saw it again immediately, being sure that I’d probably never be able to see it again. As it turns out, I was — sadly — absolutely right. The clip above gives you some idea of the quirky power of the film; someone should sort out the rights to this lost jewel, and release it as soon as possible. It’s brilliant, brutal filmmaking, and deserves the widest possible audience. In addition, it has none of its’ power in the last twenty-five years; if anything it seems more modern than much of contemporary cinema.

Click here, or on the image above to see a clip from the film; this is a lost masterpiece.

Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s – Part 4

Monday, September 10th, 2012

Peter Cook as The Prince of Darkness in Stanley Donen’s Bedazzled (1967).

Part Four of my essay on “Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s” appeared today in Film International, along with links back to parts 1, 2, and 3.

I start the essay with these thoughts: ”As the 1960s drew to a close, so did the string of dark comedies; the real world was bleak enough, and audiences began to prize artificial optimism over satiric criticism. John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 was seen at the time as aberrational; but by the end of the decade, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X had also been assassinated, and the public’s taste for “sick humor” started to wane. Simply surviving seemed a tough enough goal. Stanley Donen’s Bedazzled (1967), an updating of the Faust legend with Peter Cook as Satan and Dudley Moore as the hapless Stanley Moon, a short order cook, offered a graphic demonstration of the hopelessness of ambition. Stanley wants to be loved by Margaret (Eleanor Bron), a waitress at the Wimpy hamburger restaurant he works in, and Satan promises to help him in his quest with a series of seven wishes, but every time Stanley thinks up what he imagines to be a foolproof plan for romantic bliss, Satan can’t resist adding a little wrinkle to frustrate Stanley’s dreams.

For one wish, Stanley asks to be a pop star, and his wish is granted; shrieking a wanton ballad of unbridled lust, ‘Love Me,’ on television, he seems to have attained Margaret’s love, until Satan, appearing in the role of a rival pop singer, begins intoning a dirge-like song of rejection (‘You turn me off – go away – you disgust me – I’m not available’) that proves to be the next new trend in rock music, rendering Stanley’s pleading ballads obsolete. Stanley’s numerous other attempts to seduce Margaret, as an intellectual bachelor, and finally as a nun, also fail to work. In the end of the film, Stanley manages to escape from Satan’s clutches through a loophole in his contract, and is back at his old post, frying burgers, but this time, content with his lot. The film’s message is clear; one must be content with what one has, and not hope for more. Ambition, in a sense, is potentially disastrous.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

Eclipse Series 33: Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr.

Monday, May 14th, 2012

At last! At last! At last!

Robert Downey Sr. has been a friend of mine since the late 1960s, and his films have been criminally neglected since then, and for years he’s been telling me about a box set of his movies coming out, and now, finally, it’s here from Criterion.

As Criterion’s notes point out, “rarely do landmark works of cinema seem so . . . wrong. Robert Downey Sr. emerged as one of the most irreverent filmmakers of the new American underground of the early sixties, taking no prisoners in his rough-and-tumble treatises on politics, race, and consumer culture. In his most famous, the midnight-movie mainstay Putney Swope, an advertising agency is turned on its head when a militant African American man takes charge. Like Swope, Downey held nothing sacred. This selection of five of his most raucous and outlandish films, dating from 1964 to 1975, offers a unique mix of the hilariously abrasive and the intensely experimental.

The set includes Babo 73 (1964), in which Warhol superstar Taylor Mead plays the president of the United Status, who conducts his top-secret international affairs on a deserted beach when he isn’t at the White House (a dilapidated Victorian), in Robert Downey Sr.’s political satire. Downey’s first feature is a rollicking, slapstick, ultra-low-budget 16 mm comedy experiment that introduced a twisted new voice to the American underground scene;

Chafed Elbows (1966), a breakthrough for Downey Sr., thanks to rave notices. Visualized largely in still 35 mm photographs, it follows a shiftless downtown Manhattanite having his “annual November breakdown,” wandering from one odd job to the next;

No More Excuses (1968), in which Downey takes his camera and microphone onto the streets for a close look at Manhattan’s swinging singles scene of the late sixties. Of course, that’s not all: No More Excuses cuts between this footage and the fragmented tale of a time-traveling Civil War soldier, a rant from the director of the fictional Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, and other assorted improprieties;

Putney Swope (1969), Downey’s most popular film, an oddball classic about the antics that ensue after Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson, his voice dubbed by a gravelly Downey), the token black man on the board of a Madison Avenue advertising agency, is inadvertently elected chairman. Putney summarily fires everyone else, replaces them with Black Power apostles, renames the company Truth and Soul, Inc., and proceeds to wreak politically incorrect havoc; and finally;

Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight
(1975), ‘a film without a beginning or an end,’ in Downey’s own words, this Dadaist thingamajig—a never-before-seen, newly reedited version of the director’s 1975 release Moment to Moment (also known as Jive)—is a cascade of curious sketches, scenes, and shots that takes on a rhythmic life. It stars Downey’s wife at the time, Elsie, in an endless succession of off-the-wall roles, from dancer to cocaine fiend.”

Downey Sr. is a one of a kind original, a brilliant satirist, and a take-no-prisoners filmmaker. Buy this set immediately; these films are essential documents of the 1960s, and some of the funniest films ever made, and I honestly never thought they’d see the light of day.

And now they’re out on Criterion, no less! Congratulations, Bob; long overdue!!

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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