Films That Fell Through the Cracks: “Aaltra” (2004)

“Aaltra”

(Film Movement Series; Delépine et K/Vern)

Some films have the ability to leave you in awe while others are in possession of something capable of driving you mad. Delépine and Kervern’s directorial debut, the nebulously titled Aaltra, is in full possession of both.

Described as a darkly comic road movie, this French-Belgium co-production came and went from European arthouses, collecting warm if largely pedestrian praise from native critics, ultimately landing on our shores only after New York City’s Film Movement launched their e-commerce distribution model in 2003.

The relative obscurity that it has existed in is unfortunate, first and foremost because discerning audiences deserve to see it but, furthermore, because American independent filmmakers could learn a lot from its style and structure.

Aaltra‘s plot seems tailor-made for the sort of broad bromantic comedies that Tinseltown loves to turn out like a cheap escort…at least on paper. To wit: After finding out that his neighbor’s lazy farmhand Gus (the hulking, disheveled de Kervern, credited here as K/Vern) has been screwing his wife, a nerdy motorbike enthusiast and failing company man (French funnyman Benoît Delépine) speeds out into the fields and instigates a haphazard fistfight.

As the two men wrestle, their bodies land in the gaping maw of Gus’s combine harvester. The machine swallows them up, leaving each of them paralyzed below the waist. After realizing that they are both F.U.B.A.R., they begrudgingly decide to team up to take on the corporate bigwigs at Aaltra, the manufacturer of the offending combine.

Naturally, a sort of stand-offish camaraderie develops between the two, one that would be easy to picture drowning in saccharine if placed within the wrong hands. Fortunately for us, Delépine and Kervern are not the wrong hands and Aaltra is not that sort of movie.

Eschewing the buddy comedy formula in favor of something at once more realistic and more surreal than anything most of us are used to, pic presents us with the kind of story that often plays out among modern men in the real world; emotions are stifled, feelings left unexpressed and base urges rule supreme.

Instead of the faux-meditative scene that would find Delépine’s Ben confiding in Gus about the disintegration of his marriage and the laughably awkward details of his sex life, Delépine and Kervern never speak of Gus’s covetous tryst or Ben’s wife at all.

This left quite the impression on me when first I saw it since it flies in the face of our collective understanding of narrative composition. And it’s this kind of ultra-realistic detail (or lack thereof) that gives Aaltra its charm. Of course Ben and Gus never engage in some contrived heart-to-heart about marriage, infidelity or divorce.

Why bother? No use squabbling about yesterday when tomorrow is gonna be lousy enough. After all, each is now half a man in their own eyes, but together they form one mean son of a bitch.

Those seeking an escape from the hypostatized universe of Hollywood cinema would do well to seek this one out. It provides viewers with a slightly askew realism that hasn’t been seen since Jeunet and Caro’s Delicatessan or, at least, Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America (fitting that Kaurismäki should cameo in Aaltra‘s denouement).

There is much of the Theater of Cruelty on display, almost all of it more comical than anything Alejandro Jodorowsky ever committed to celluloid (save, perhaps, for select bits of Fando y Lis). From the way the male nurse fucks with them once he’s confirmed that they cannot feel their legs to Ben’s surreptitious theft of a barfly’s drink when he’s not looking.

There is also something of American vintage here in the particular physical comedy that both men employ. Gus’s slow ascension while lying in an automatic hospital bed feels like it was engineered to be an homage to the age of Keaton and Chaplin. And that’s to say nothing of Ben’s Harold Lloyd-worthy pratfalls.

We know from early on that Aaltra‘s journey will have its end in Finland, so it is appropriate that our dyspeptic duo manage to illustrate that country’s aversion to arbitrary loquaciousness. When an old sod at a pub talks relentlessly at a laconic patron, going on and on about something as seemingly mundane as air conditioning in a tractor, we can feel the collective pain of the Finns.

Subtle touches of physical and visual humor soon give way to an extremity that’s every bit as amusing and confounding. The flick is especially effective at juxtaposing the average person’s veneer of samaritanism with the patina of short-tempered prejudice simmering under the surface.

This paradox is first displayed in a worker’s removal of Ben and Gus from a motocross track. “You guys can’t stay here,” he exclaims. “It kills the dream.”

Just when you might begin to feel pity for them, pic reminds us how wrong that sentiment would be. As it turns out, these two scabrous individuals work well together, effortlessly pulling grift after grift on the proud fools in their path. These are guys who think nothing of stealing popcorn from a little boy and threatening to slit his throat if he snitches.

Their primary victims: Every bourgeois idiot who dares to count themselves as well-meaning do-gooders when, in reality, they treat the handicapped as anything but equal. Their encounter with a British motocross star and grade A wank (Jason Flemyng) is almost as riotous as the psychological havoc they wreak on an uptight German couple (Brrring! Brrring!).

It’s the wealthy and entitled Brit who gets one of the flick’s most quotable lines: “It’s people like you that give fucking people in wheelchairs a bad fucking name!” This emerges as one of the only lines worth mentioning in a film whose economy with the verbal gives every line weight.

Like all of the best comedies, Aaltra is also a tragedy, one that opts to impress its poignancy through stark and random images and penetrating silences instead of overwrought pathos.

The beach sequence, featured prominently in the DVD release’s artwork, leaves an indelible impression not only for its blackly comic tableau but, also, the austere beauty of the same. No other director has ever made such effective use of the Lord’s prayer, certainly not in such a perfectly literate fashion.

One of the funniest scenes in the entire picture is also one of its most tense. A stocky Finn with a greasy pompadour sings a flamboyant rendition of Bobby Hebb’s R & B classic “Sunny” while our cripples sit back eating sausage and a room full of mean-looking skinheads seethe.

It’s in moments like this that Delépine and Kervern’s message comes through loud and clear: You need not fear for the well-being of these antagonistic protagonists, but you should worry about everyone else around them.

According to IMDB, Aaltra’s worldwide box office amounted to little more than $6,000 in sales. This may be discouraging if film fans equate financial success with artistic success. Personally, I choose not to.

Part of me believes that true art has no monetary value, only a kind of spiritual one. But as a gambling man, my money’s on this one finding the audience it deserves on streaming platforms.

As for its directors, they have gone on to make a number of unique projects including their Aaltra follow-up Avida. It’s my intention to check that one out sooner than later. I have it on good authority that it made at least seven gs.—Bob Freville

What a Bunch of Assholes: The Scatalogical Satire of Peter Vack

(Breaking Glass Pictures)

dir. Peter Vack

“I’m not fucking a fucking sober bitch pussy, and I’m not having sex like a..no…nobody else would have sex with me because how are they gonna do it? This day and age, all y—, the only way you fuck is if you go for a drink with someone.”

This is how Peter Vack’s 2017 indie addiction comedy Assholes opens, and it’s exactly the kind of irresponsible but fundamentally true diatribe that has become a red diamond in American cinema of late. The films of the 2000s are increasingly homogenized with even the so-called independent films bearing little resemblance to those made in the Seventies, Eighties or even Nineties.

With the exception of Harmony Korine’s tonal prose-poem The Beach Bum, I can think of few, if any, examples of recent movies that allowed their characters to be human, warts and all. Even long-form narratives aren’t permitted to be this honest or ugly. My mind immediately goes to the Hulu series Difficult People which focused on a duo of hopelessly despicable protagonists.

It’s worth mentioning that said show was canceled after its second season. So much for the artistic freedom of streaming services. I’ve gotta wonder if the Billy Eichner series was given the ax, at least in part, because of its equal opportunity insults. Indeed, nothing seemed to be off-limits in Difficult People, whether it was jokes about 9/11 being an inside job, the proliferation of pop-up restaurants or the obnoxious and out-of-control hipsterdom of 21st Century Manhattan (see: John Mulaney as Old Timey Cecil whose breakout line is, “My family invented the jelly bean. Fuck you!”).

Difficult People would have been a fitting and admittedly more mature title for Peter Vack’s directorial debut. In another universe I could even see the two being paired up for a retrospective. But not in 2020, not even if you’re Todd Solondz or John Waters. The former is relegated to the back pages of Amazon while the latter has to write books in lieu of directing motion pictures.

All “get off my lawn” nostalgic yearning aside, I’ve gotta commend Vack for the bold choices that he makes from frame one. A lot of ink has been spilled about Assholes being a “gross-out” movie, but it’s not the crassness of the dialogue or the hideous sight gags that are really so jarring. Instead it’s Vack’s keen attention to detail that other millennial filmmakers would be unlikely to think of.

In the very first sequence of the flick, as Adah Shapiro, pic’s girl in begrudging recovery, complains about how much she hates sober people we are treated to subtitles that cannot be removed by remote. These subtitles aren’t in another language other than our own. In fact, they are all too familiar to some of us.

“When I was not a sober person and I looked at ber people, I wod be like, whoa, like, you are li, lame. Like, I never gonna be like you. And now that I have crossed over to the sober fe, I stil feel that way, I do! I just still feel that way, and I, I jt, you know, nothing’s changed, and just, and it makes me feel incredibly lonely. Like, incredibly alone in this world because now I forced to hang out with people who I relateero…”

This is just a taste of Adah’s lament and the accompanying subtitles read like nothing so much as a regrettable text message that you send to a former lover at four in the morning before crashing on a park bench and waking up in your own urine.

It is this sense of authenticity that gives Assholes its real power. And it is this power that makes this more than what can fairly be referred to as a “gross-out comedy.” For every feculent fluid that’s highlighted on-screen there are a handful of exchanges that underscore the seriousness of the subject matter.

This acute authenticity extends far beyond the frankness of Adah’s sexual frustration to the way in which she projects her sickness onto her brother, something that virtually every addict has been guilty of at some point in their downward spiral.

I feel like I need to point out that Adah is played by Vack’s real life sister and that Adam Shapiro, her on-screen brother, is played by Vack himself. The actor-director’s birth name was Peter S. Brown. He and his sister’s parents are Ron and Jane Brown, a screenwriter and producer, respectively.

If one were to venture a guess as to the origins of Assholes‘ plot they would probably assume that it’s a work of autobiography. Fortunately for Vack and his sibling, this was never the case. The pair were raised on the Upper West Side by an entrepreneurial father and a mother who earned a living as a psychoanalyst.

While Vack has copped to the fact that they drew upon “past animosities” toward each other, this was not the crux of his idea for the story. In fact, the characters were originally written as ex-lovers and Vack only decided to alter the script after his sister performed the part of the ex-gf during a table read.

People can talk all they want about how “disgusting” this film is, but I dare anyone to name another recent American film that has so lovingly paid homage to the composition of International arthouse pictures. From the off-kilter framing and overbearing lighting to the stilted dialogue and random outbursts, there is little here that could be compared to the likes of the Farrelly Brothers or a Judd Apatow flick.

Maybe Peter Vack isn’t the real asshole, maybe it’s people like me who get off on seeing something that so brazenly thumbs its nose at narrative convention and domestic cinematic structure. I suspect this was at least a consideration of Vack’s if not his full intent.

While I was watching Assholes I was reminded of a quote by Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki in which he complained about the state of modern cinema, saying, “In the old days you had one murder and that was enough for a story. Now you have to kill 300,000 people just to get the audience’s attention.”

If any quote explains the necessity of Assholes‘ verbal and visual excesses it’s this jeremiad. In a world that’s become increasingly desensitized to sex and violence on camera, the only logical next step is for a male and female protagonist to suck each others’ assholes and cold sores. Not because it’s particularly beautiful or artistic, simply because there’s nowhere left to go. How else will you get anyone’s attention?

While it can easily be argued that subtlety would be a better and craftier weapon against mainstream cinema’s excesses, it’s impossible not to acknowledge a certain brilliance in Vack’s politically incorrect presentation of drug-induced insanity.

One extended sequence in the first half hour feels so painfully real that it’s difficult to imagine it being filmed without the cast and crew landing in NYC’s infamous Tombs. And that’s before the birth of the shit-smeared demon woman from the mortal asshole.

It’s fitting that Vack and his sister grew up with a mother who specialized in psychoanalysis because the entire film could be read as one protracted 74-minute therapy session. This is not lost on Assholes‘ creator who makes it a point to include an analyst as a central character, one that seems perpetually put upon by his neurotic patients.

That the analyst is himself so desperate for a connection that he considers himself friends with these assholes reinforces the notion that Assholes isn’t merely about assholes and their obsession with assholes but, more importantly, about how we all have our heads wedged firmly up our assholes.

In short, Assholes is a family film that everyone should be able to connect with. One character sums the madness up quite succinctly: “It’s gender blind, it seems to be directed at all of us.” At the end of the day, these assholes are us.—Bob Freville

Watching Kwaidan in 2020

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No genre ages on the screen quite like horror. CGI certainly comes in handy when you deal in realistic depictions of human injury and supernatural intercessions into the everyday world. This is particularly true when the success of these elements relies on a strong sense of visual atmosphere. A big studio budget doesn’t exactly hurt. It appears that successful horror cinema in the 21st century needs all the technical wizardry it can get.

But there are always exceptions, of course, and The Blair Witch Project seems like the go-to example every time this discussion comes up. Yes, it was made on a shoestring budget and went on to rake in a stunning turnaround upon its release. Part of this, however, is due to the promotional efforts that went into this project. There’s no denying that the ambiguity surrounding the “truth” of the Blair Witch legend worked in the film’s favor, even if you do believe that the film stands just fine on its own two feet. Nevertheless, it still feels like one of those things that could only “fool” mass audiences once.

But this isn’t yet another article about The Blair Witch Project.

We’re here to talk about the ravishing work of Japanese horror cinema, Kwaidan. In particular, I’m interested in convincing you that it’s still worth watching in 2020.

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Based on a series of folk tales collected by weird fiction staple Lufcadio Hearn, this 1965 film, like all cinema of its era, is at a severe technological disadvantage by current industry standards. Such a time gap, particularly given Kwaidan’s visual ambition, can truly stand out to modern viewers. While cinephiles seem to prefer to gloss over such differences in favor of a seemingly “objective” perspective that automatically places each film–rather academically, I might add–in its own historical context, this does little to guide casual audiences to a greater appreciation of the work in question. That’s why I feel the need to get this out of the way. Yes, Kwaidan can feel very dated, particularly in the multiple instances in the climax of the initial segment where the soundtrack seems to lag somewhere behind the action.

Yes, there’s very little in the way of special effects. Yes, the sets are blatantly fake. And yes, the backdrop is literally a series of still images throughout the film.

See? This isn’t quite the same as suspending your ultra-modern viewing standards for the length of a bit of the Hellraiser franchise.

Ignore all that.

Or better yet, pretend you’re watching a stage performance. Or do what I did: focus on the subtle and sometimes stunning interplay between the vivid colors of the illuminated backdrop and the action very meticulously unfolding before you. Watch the hollow, unmoving eyes in the sky throughout “The Woman of the Snow” as they watch two unsuspecting men stumble into another world in the midst of a blizzard below. Watch white clouds run with blood or burst into a towering blaze while two people grope innocently towards love. Listen to Hoichi the Earless as he sings the stunning tale of the Heike. Let the battle of Dan-no-ura unfold without interruption, and you’ll find that it’s less of a lengthy exposition and more a work of art on its own.

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Whatever you do, slow your mind, find your balance, and summon your patience. I’m here to tell you that Kwaidan is a joy that demands you to meet it on its own terms. It’s fitting that a few of the tales collected here savagely punish those who strive too vigilantly to control their fate. Like the Woman of the Snow herself, it’s best to accept this otherworldly beauty without the profanation of overthinking.

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What makes Kwaidan so unique, especially in the age of fast-paced, showy blockbuster horror affairs like Insidious, is that it is not simply a film. It’s an experience, one about as close enough to being “wholly other” in the realm of horror cinema as possible without alienating the audience. That this movie provides viewers the tools to adjust to this otherness–a slow, steady pace with an emphasis on the environment, much silence between bits of dialogue, scenery that, for all its artificiality, is musical as much as it is visual–elevates it grandly above the pitfalls of self-consciously experimental renderings of the weird. No, Kwaidan is not out to beat you over the head with its strangeness. It’s organically strange, a characteristic emerging from its subject matter that was generously allowed to stain every surface of this film. And that alone is worthy of celebration.

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This film isn’t simply a quaint relic from the past. All signs indicate that it similarly impressed audiences when it was released in ‘65. It won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes that year as well as a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. Nevertheless, you really don’t hear fans of the weird lavishing praise on Kwaidan as you do, say, The Wicker Man. This is a damned shame.

It’s a shame to be expected, however, since this film does demand a certain imaginative openness from its viewers. I’m far from making the claim that watching Kwaidan is “good for you,” since I firmly believe that art doesn’t need the cheap, pragmatic apologetics of a society firmly imbedded in the cult of self improvement. Art is something wholly apart from the materialistic concerns of the everyday–it’s an experience closer to the outlying notions of (real) worship and play than the mundane exchange of small pains for petty gains. By this metric, Kwaidan is certainly a work of art; you should experience it for the same reasons you should experience all great films.

What I’m trying to convey is, like all subjective experiences, beyond words. Let this somber song unwound like a variegated sunset of dreams. Your time will not be wasted–in fact, you’ll find that time has politely withdrawn somewhere along the way and is waiting, an unwelcome but necessary companion, with your jacket at the exit.

–Justin A. Burnett


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Kindle Kult: Nightscape Press, Laird Barron, Tim Waggoner, and More

Yes, Ashes and Entropy, everyone’s favorite anthology of recent years from Nightscape Press, is on sale for only $0.99 right now! Featuring a host of weird fiction’s heroes, including, Laird Barron, Jon Padgett, Kristi DeMeester, John Langan, and so many more, this is undoubtedly a must have.

And while we’re talking great anthologies, why not pick up Nox Paredolia? Sure, we’ve already featured it recently, but now it’s going for $0.99! Another stunning release which has earned award nominations across the map, fans of weird fiction truly can’t afford to pass this up.

Again from Nightscape, Tim Waggoner’s collection, Dark and Distant Voices, is available now for $2.49! This excellent deal certainly won’t last! “This is every card in the horror deck, played by someone who knows the game better than most of us ever will.”—Stephen Graham Jones

In the mood for something explicitly Lovecraftian? William Meikle’s Into the Black is waiting for you… and only for $1.99. There’s not a single bad rating on Amazon, and that’s truly something for a collection like this. I’m excited to try this one out myself.

In my Kindle bargain shopping experience (and I have a lot of it), Laird Barron’s titles don’t go on sale for long. X’s for Eyes’ $2.99 price tag is truly a blessing, and you’d be doing your duty by the Ancient Ones for next to nothing if you picked it up now.

Curtis M. Lawson’s Black Heart Boy’s Choir is certainly a provocative read centered around school violence. For $2.99, there’s absolutely no reason to miss this dark meditation on music, insanity, and violence. Get it while you can!

*All Kindle deals have nothing whatsoever to do with Silent Motorist Media. We are merely pointing them out to you, and we encourage you to verify the price before purchasing. None of these prices are guaranteed to last!

Kindle Kult is supported exclusively by your purchases via the links provided above. If you enjoy this series, please do yourself, the featured authors, and Kindle Kult a favor by snagging these awesome kindle deals!

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Pistachio Kid – Sweet Remedies: The SMM Review

Here at SMM, we like the unique, the lone ranger, the poor bastards clawing and crawling to make their mark in the world.

You may not guess it at first glance, but this doesn’t just include the bizarre, horrific and weird. It includes all of those less heard and known.

Before this review, I had never heard of Pistachio Kid. Not surprising considering this is the Pistachio Kid debut album.

Singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist Charlie McKeon takes you on a calming journey in this debut album. The songs play as though he were sitting in the room with you, telling you the story of his life, stolen bikes, fields to play in, and the good times he spent in his home town of Liverpool or attending Leeds College of Music.

The music is clear and crisp, something I’d listen to while writing or working. It isn’t distracting and I could simply tap my foot to the beat while chilling, a lemonade in hand on a warm summer, or a warm drink in a mountain lodge between snowboarding runs, or a tavern in a fantasy world.

I imagine Mckeon as a bard, singing songs of his adventures to tavern patrons. Traveling from town to town in search of fame and fortune with only his guitar and laptop computer strapped to his back.

My personal favorite of the album is Vistabella Road. The acapella intro leading into guitar and piano is like warm butter to the ears. Honestly, I have no idea what the lyrics mean. And Christopher Columbus was a bit of a monster… so… there’s that… But the song is great.

The album is also surprisingly dark. One song sings about a lover and her family and friends hanging from a tree. It’s reminiscent of Doki Doki Literature Club. If you haven’t played that game, you should. Cute and cuddly at first glance, with morbidity and death buried beneath the surface waiting to spring and give you anxiety and nightmares.

Despite my enjoyment of the songs, there are a few songs that left me wanting more. They simply felt too short, not in length, but in story, the endings felt clipped and a bit rushed. The song would feel like it was picking up for something big, or a continuation, then.

There were also a few songs that I felt needed a bit more editing. I’m not sure if it was intentional, missed, or what, but the breath and click at the end of some of the songs, or the sound of what could have been a computer mouse was a bit distracting for me. It’s something I’d expect from the early stages of music recording, not today with fancy editing software. Again, maybe it’s for affect.

Overall, if you’re into chill, folky music, you should check out this album. It’s a good first installment for a great artist.