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Before I begin, I suppose I should answer the basic question: Just what the fuck is a What the Fuck (heretofore WTF) film?
Well, basically, the easiest definition is the onomatopoetic one: it’s a movie that makes you go “WTF, dude, WTF”.
I’m not sure that really helps, because that description’s kind of vague and subjective and ambiguous and imprecise and all the other points of film criticism law. And that’s because WTF films are a bit hard to define. They come in many shapes and sizes, many styles and aesthetic forms, many colors and tints (for some they are white and gold, for others black and blue).
But generally they can be recognized by their anarchic plumage; their refusal to care about rules and regulations; by their determination to march to their own kind of drummer; make their own kind of music; and sing their own kind of song, because, well, that’s just what they gotta do.
Not everyone will agree which films are WTF and which ones aren’t. One man’s, “Oh, my god, just what was that I just saw” is another man’s, “Well, it was okay I guess”, is another man’s, “That was the worst piece of shit I’ve seen in my life”.
But everyone agrees they’re like art: we don’t know how to define it, we just know it when we see it.
Before I go any further, I would like to explain why I’m writing an essay on this topic.
I believe that an art form of any kind can’t continue to exist without growth; without innovation; without originality and vision. Otherwise, it will implode and fold in on itself like a star and become a big black hole that just drags anything inside it that comes floating remotely nearby.
And that’s one thing you can’t say about WTF films. Whether you like them or not, whether a particular one speaks to you or not, whether one connects with you in some way, they are not black holes. They are the definition of originality and innovation. They are the new stars being born to replace the dying ones. And they need to be nurtured and called attention to.
In addition, over the last number of years, in reading for screenplay competitions, a production company and through my own consultation services, a certain formulaic familiarity, a certain static structure, and a certain banal blandness seems to have crept in, taking over writers until more and more they begin to resemble pod people.
So I think it might be of interest and might free up the creative impulse in writers if they are able to see exactly what is available to them as screenwriters; exactly what can be done; exactly what one can get away with if one is so inclined to (and god, I wish more writers were).
This is not to say that many of these examples won’t seem fairly mild by today’s standards. What is shocking in one era may seem status quo today, especially if the innovations were eventually incorporated into the mainstream (which they often were).
During the silent days, we had stylistic innovators that gave us A Trip to the Moon, Un Chien Andalou, Vampyr, 10 Days that Shook the World and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (German expressionism and Communist orthodoxy led the innovators).
In the early 1930’s, we had the pre-code period that gave us the outrageousness of such films as Freaks, Baby Face and The Story of Temple Drake, followed by the anarchy of the Marx Brothers that reached their apex in Duck Soup.
Post war saw the introduction of French new wave and the rise of Italian filmmakers with such existential formulations as Breathless, L’Aventura and Last Year at Marienbad; with the rebellion in Communist controlled countries resulting in such films as Daisies and Two Men and a Wardrobe; as well as the rise of English comedy with The Bed Sitting Room and eventually Monty Python.
But it is perhaps in the 1960’s and ‘70’s in the U.S. when WTF films perhaps come into their own with the rise of Grindhouse and the Midnight Movie movement and such films as Night of the Living Dead, Pink Flamingos, Eraserhead, El Topo and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, stylistic elements of which became mainstream with the rise of such filmmakers as the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino.
Now we have the new millennium and our own set of WTF films.
Again, you may not agree that all the following are WTF movies. You may not even like all of them (I certainly don’t). But I think they are films that can make you think, and if you let them, can open you up to new depths of creativity when it comes to the art form.
THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT (2001): Written and directed by and starring Cory McAbee, this unusual bit of filmmaking, to say the least, is a sci-fi, musical, western shot in black and white. The basic premise is that an interplanetary trader is going about his business not realizing someone is after him who wants him dead. This includes such oddities as visiting an all male mining planet where he picks up The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast, and a female dominated planet where the hero sings the song The Girl with the Vagina Made of Glass. Beyond that, the plot involves a cat, but that’s about all I’m going to tell you.
DONNIE DARKO (2001): This is probably everybody’s favorite WTF film of the last fifteen years and one people still argue about as they try to figure out just what the hell it was all about. Written and directed by Richard Kelly, the story gives us Jake Gyllenhaal as one of those troubled teens movies are so fond of, but this one has a habit of seeing a large bunny rabbit that tries to get him to do all sorts of awful things (a far cry from Harvey, where the giant rabbit just wants to have a drink with Jimmy Stewart). The plot is twisted and tangled and ends on a tragic note.
ENTER THE VOID (2009): Written by film provocateur Gasper Noé (with the help of Lucile Hadzilhalilovic, and directed by Noé, this technically does much of what Birdman also does: tells a story in a continuous series of seamless single takes. Inspired by the filmmaker having seen Robert Montgomery’s first person POV movie The Lady in the Lake while on drugs, as well as the stargate section of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the story is told from the point of view of the central character, a drug dealer who is killed and whose soul then travels the streets of Tokyo until it finds a sort of resting place. Brilliantly realized visually and technically, the film is hampered by an almost three hour running time, but only having enough story for an hour’s length, as well as a bland performance by the lead actor.
RUBBER (2010): An abandoned tire comes to life, starts rolling around and discovers that it can shoot people and make their heads explode through telekinesis. He also falls in love and/or wants to have sex with a woman he comes across. All the while, a group of film spectators watch the action. Yeah, that’s what it’s about. You want to make something of it? Written and directed by Quentin Dupieux, he just seems to relish in this comedy’s weirdness.
CODEPENDENT LESBIAN SPACE ALIEN SEEKS SAME (2011): An outgrowth of the new film movement in New York (it has Alex Karpovsky in a supporting role, so what does that tell you), this black and white sci-fi parody concerns a planet in which positive emotions are poking holes in the ozone. Because of this, the powers that be send those who are harming the environment to the planet Earth where they can fall in love and get their hearts broken, eventually returning home, no longer a danger to the planet. Of course, this time around, no one’s heart is broken and true love wins out as a shy salesclerk in a greeting card store and one of the aliens fall in love with each other. Written and directed by Madeleine Olnek, this is a film that never got a proper release.
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012): Probably the most mainstream of the choices here (it did get four Academy Award nominations after all), Beasts… is a sort of fairy tale revolving around a group of people who live in “the bathtub”, a section of the Louisiana Delta outside of society. The writers Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin (Zeitlin also directed) use impressionism, surrealism, magic realism (and who knows how many other isms) to tell the story of a little girl, the marvelous Quvenzhané Wallis (the youngest person ever nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress) who, through a series of adventures, finally becomes leader of the people of the Bathtub. With an emotionally powerful music score by Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin.
HOLY MOTORS (2012): Something of a comeback for French enfant terribles Leo Carax, who struck like lightning with his first film Boy Meets Girl in 1984, but had a spectacular failure with The Lovers on the Bridge in 1991 and has had trouble getting a film made since. In this deeply moving story, a man (brilliantly played by Denis Levant) makes his living traveling Paris in a limousine constantly stopping to act out fictional scenes in different styles (a sci-fi fight in front of a green screen; a boulevard melodrama; a neo-noir gangster flick; a musical) for an unseen audience. But the difficulty of constantly changing roles and his investment in each character is wearing on him, threatening to result in a nervous breakdown. One of the finest films in this list.
UPSTREAM COLOR (2013): Co-produced, written, directed, starring, co-edited and with music by Shane Carruth, this is his first film since his well respected first film Primer. Both fall into the sci-fi genre. In Upstream Color, someone has discovered a drug that can be used to put people into a hypnotic state such that they can be manipulated to do whatever is wanted. A woman (a strong Amy Seimetz) is slipped a mickey and comes out of her trance days later to find herself penniless and fired because she’s been absent from her job for too long. She then meets a man who went through the same issues and together they discover what is going on. A movie whose plot is not always easy to follow, the story is highly unusual and told in an almost surrealistic and impressionistic series of scenes and images. You may not always know what is going on, but it’s often as hypnotic as the drug employed in the film.
BORGMAN (2013): In this film from the Netherlands, written and directed by Alex van Warmerdam, a vagrant on the run for unknown reasons manages to insinuate himself as a gardener in an upper-middle class family. He then proceeds to destroy their lives in ways that are difficult to describe, but are often psychological terrifying. The plot is hard to describe because it unfolds on its own terms, but the whole thing is oddly mesmerizing. With a charismatic performance by Jan Bijvoet in the title role.
UNDER THE SKIN (2013): In this spellbinding sci-fi film written by Walter Campbell and director Jonathan Glazer (based on a book by Michel Faber), an alien played by Scarlett Johannson is sent to earth to seduce men who are then lured to a mysterious house where they are encased in a kind of liquid until their bodies decompose and are sent back to the alien’s home planet. Many of the scenes where Johannson drives around Scotland and talks to men were improvised without the men knowing they were in a movie. Johannson gives an impressive performance (the same year she also gave incredible performances in Lucy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and the movie is backed by an incredible music score by Mica Levi.
Each of these movies were created out of a unique vision by their filmmakers and take the audience to places that are the outer boundaries of what movies can be right now. They are not safe and comfortable, but challenging and confrontational and show that there is little that one cannot do if one sets their mind to it. These writers, directors and produces are the innovators that will insure the survival of the species as the art form evolves into what is needed to survive the future.