September 2018, arsenal cinema

Magical History Tour
 – Forms of the Grotesque


As an artistic stylistic device, the grotesque crosses all boundaries. Its definitions are as varied and subjective as its shifts in meaning in (art) history are numerous and its forms in film are frequent and multifaceted. Grotesque motifs appear in worlds of images, send shivers, combine with fantasy or humor (or both), light up characters, whose behavior ranges from the bizarre and eccentric to the monstrous, provide the basis for whole storylines, deform and transform cinematographic reality or break new ground in dramatic feverish dreams, hysterical excesses or satirical and absurd confusions. Grotesque elements can be found in all genres, from the comedy to the thriller, to Heimat films or romantic movies. Taking in different eras, styles and regions as usual, our 10 Magical History Tour films illustrate the influence of the grotesque’s anarchic force – in ways that can be upsetting at times, or exhilarating, but always idiosyncratic and surprising.

INDAGINE SU UN CITTADINO AL DI SOPRA DI OGNI SOSPETTO (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, Elio Petri, Italy 1970, 1. & 12.9.) As the title of this dark settlement with Italy’s state guardians of law and order suggests, Dottore (Gian Maria Volonté) believes himself to be “above suspicion”. The former head of a homicide squad who has moved up in the police hierarchy, he puts the power structures to the test: He murders his girlfriend in cold blood, leaving behind a series of overwhelming indications that he committed the crime. The clear evidence is ignored, on purpose or not, or re-interpreted by the police apparatus. Dottore seems to be perfectly untouchable. A Kafkaesque political thriller that is a universal reflection on (the abuse of) power, dependence and arbitrariness.

THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (Jerry Lewis, USA 1963, 2. & 8.9.) Described for decades in Germany as “grotesque film”, the genre of slapstick - alongside horror - is particularly suited to the grotesque, as effortlessly and hilariously proven by Jerry Lewis’ fourth directorial work. In front of the camera, Lewis - one of the most famous slapstick comedians and a king of physical contortion - moves between two extremes: playing the confused and dangerously experimental chemistry professor Kelp and the slick and cool ladies’ man Buddy Love. This breathtaking variation on Jekyll and Hyde is considered to be Lewis’ masterpiece, whose fireworks (literally) display of transfiguration has qualities of color and spectacle.

LE CHARME DISCRET DE LA BOURGEOISIE (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Luis Buñuel, F/E 1972, 4. & 9.9.) A restaurant manager who lies in state, drug-dealing diplomats, soft toys as targets,   vindictive priests, stoned soldiers - a variety of increasingly surreal vignettes provide the framework for the indefatigable but always failing attempts of a group of fine society in Paris to eat dinner together. What begins as a slow-burner grotesque film develops into a cascade of increasingly bloodthirsty nightmares, where the borders between the mad hell of dreams and the reality of the high-society protagonists gradually threaten to blur.

FREAK ORLANDO (Ulrike Ottinger, FRG 1981, 11. & 19.9.) Ulrike Ottinger draws a line from a mythological past all the way to the 20th century in her "small theater of the world" that in five episodes tells the story of the life and death of freaks, the abnormal and outsiders, of fallacy, incompetence, the hunger for power, fear, madness, cruelty and the everyday. This episodic, globe-spanning journey through time is led by Orlando (Magdalena Montezuma) as a wonderer through the centuries and stars Delphine Seyrig in different roles (from tree of life goddess to Siamese twin). It starts in a department store where myths are sold off and ends at a “festival of the ugly” and is a fantastic collage of the grotesque, the satirical, the uncanny and the surreal.

TA PEAU SI LISSE (A Skin so Soft, Denis Côté, Canada/F/CH 2017, 13.9.) Distorting, steely muscles as far as the eye can see - grotesque. Not for the protagonists of Côté’s portrait of five high-level  bodybuilders and one wrestler and strongman, whose muscle mass is in no way inferior to that of the more mainstream body-builders. The lives of all six center on their muscular bodies, flawless soft skin, the competitions, non-stop training, iron discipline and the will to persevere. The contradiction between their muscles and their facial expressions reveals how stressful their lives are, lives in which there is little space for family and friends: While the former testify to force and strength, the latter cannot hide the exertions and melancholy.

FARGO(Joel Coen, USA 1996, 14. & 22.9.) As if from nowhere, this “grotesque Heimatfilm” based on a “true story” crystallizes in the winter fog. A car dealer with financial problems commissions two crooks, who become increasingly difficult to control, to kidnap his wife in the snowy expanses of the sleepy state of Minnesota, so as to extort a ransom from his wealthy father-in-law to get back on his feet. A glorious cabinet of absurdities, in which bizarreness and gun fever, humor and horror, control and disaster are scarily close, emerges between a misunderstanding at the beginning and a scene boasting the unusual use of a wood chipper at the end.

PALERMO ODER WOLFSBURG (Werner Schroeter, FRG 1980, 20. & 25.9.) A passion play in three acts: It all begins with Nicola leaving his home in Sicily for Germany, where he hopes to find a job and make a living. Wolfsburg welcomes him with gloom and darkness, cold and loneliness. Intoxicated, he kills two youths. The last act is the court hearing against Nicola: It is a confusingly surrealistic farce that becomes distorted into opera-like grotesque where two cultures clash.

CHEMI BEBIA (My Grandmother, Kote Miqaberidze, USSR 1929, 21. & 28.9., on piano: Eunice Martins) A biting, grotesque silent film which caricatures Soviet bureaucracy and petty bourgeoisie in such a politically incorrect way that it was kept under tight wraps for over 40 years. Stop-motion animation, puppetry, Constructivist sets, experimental camera provide the framework for the story about a bureaucrat who has been dismissed and receives the advice to find a “grandmother”, i.e. protection, if he wants to find another job.

THE LOBSTER(Yorgos Lanthimos, GR/GB/F 2015, 23. & 29.9.) A society made up only of couples (the City) and a posh hotel (the Hotel), in which single people have 45 days to find a partner before being transformed into an animal of their choice and a group of single people (the Loners), who escaped from the hotel and were therefore not transformed into animals, and now live a rigid single life in the woods. Lanthimos’ grotesque variation on a love film is at once a bizarre vision of the future and a surreal fable: it’s staged laconically, boasts a perfect cast and is full of absurd humor. The disquiet lingers.

DIE 3-GROSCHENOPER(The Threepenny Opera, G.W. Pabst, G 1931, 27. & 30.9.) From grotesque film to “grotesque dance”, as the dancer, actress, cabaret star, bar owner, author and influential artist Valeska Gert (1892–1978) herself put it. Even if she often played secondary roles, her characteristic performances had a lasting impact on the films. This is true for her role as the wife of the beggar king Peachum (Fritz Rasp) in Pabst’s adaptation of Brecht’s ballad, in which this latter conspires with the corrupt police chief Tiger Brown (Reinhold Schünzel) against his recently married daughter and new son-in-law. Set in 19th-century London’s criminal underworld, the beggar’s opera/gangster ballad takes a grotesque turn in Pabst’s film and ends in a different parallel world of a more bourgeois nature: that of a bank. (mg)

arsenal cinema: The Depths of the Uncanny - Films by Dario Argento and David Lynch

08:00 pm Cinema 1

Blue Velvet

Blue Velvet David Lynch USA 1986
With Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper,
Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, Dean Stockwell
35 mm OV 120 min