Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Portmanteau A Go-Go

Portmanteau films, also called omnibuses or anthology films, tend to live in the shadows of regular features. They are usually decried as uneven and disjointed, often because of varying quality between the segments, conflicting visions of multiple directors or the failure of a central theme to gel. I’m never quite sure how I feel about them and for a long time I made a special point of avoiding even well-regarded omnibuses.

My interest was eventually stirred by Professor David Scott Diffrient, whose opinion I quickly came to value. I later learned he was something of an expert on the topic. We had the option of hitting the theater for a screening of “Three… Extremes” (2004) as part of our final projects. How awesome is that?

Unfortunately, I’ve yet to get around to seeing the particular anthologies we discussed in class: “In Our Time” (1982) and “The Sandwich Man” (1983) from the dawn of the Taiwanese New Wave. In my defense, copies of these films are not exactly falling from the sky. However, I have kept my eyes open for interesting omnibuses and for those who are also interested in or curious about episodic cinema a fantastic opportunity will be available this Halloween.

Turner Classic Movies is rather brilliantly showing an anthology of horror anthologies: five back-to-back horror portmanteaus running past the wee hours of the morning. I plan to start a little early with “House of Usher” at 6:30 and than watch the next 12 hours through, marathon style. Here’s a bit of an overview:

Dead of Night” (1945) – This is the plum that really caught my eye, since I’ve been vacillating about buying an expensive VHS just to see it for quite some time. It kicked of the directing career of Charles Crichton (“The Lavender Hill Mob”) and Robert Hamer (“Kind Hearts and Coronets”) and also features segments by Basil Dearden (“The Blue Lamp”) and Alberto Calvacanti. It was a very early example of the omnibus mode, highly influential, well-regarded and now somewhat rare (not on DVD in the US and expensive otherwise). I plan to feature it in an upcoming Iceberg Arena on evil ventriloquist dummies.

Twice-Told Tales” (1963) – Three Vincent Price vehicles directed by Sidney Salkow and written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It should be a pretty safe bet for Price fans.

Torture Garden” (1967) – I’m guessing this will be my least favorite of the series, but I still plan to give it a chance. I’ve never seen any of the British Amicus Anthologies (best known for “Tales from the Crypt”), and I’m told this is not one of the best, but it gives me a place to start. Freddie Francis directs the five shorts tied together by a magic sideshow carnie.

Kwaidan” (1964) – This is the only one I’ve already seen pre-Halloween, and I can certainly vouch for it. Masaki Kobayashi’s four episodes may not be particularly terrifying, but they are gorgeous feats of color, atmosphere and set design. Absolutely immaculate presentation (the Criterion restoration will hopefully be used) and ample time (3 hours) to develop the stories makes this a standout.

Spirits of the Dead” (1968) - #2 if ranked by my anticipation is this rather prestigious omnibus featuring three Edgar Allen Poe stories adapted by none other than Federico Fellini, Louis Malle and Roger Vadim and featuring Jane Fonda, Brigitte Bardot, Terence Stamp, Alain Delon and Peter Fonda. It’s considered one of the best of its breed and though it isn’t hard to find the DVD online, its unavailability on Netflix made me put it off for far too long.

Needless to say, I’ll be getting very little sleep and ill-timed interruptions by trick-or-treaters might be sent screaming from the door in a less than joking manner.

And now I plan to ramble about portmanteaus for a little bit. I’m wondering if anyone has some good recommendations. Let me hear about them if so!

I tend to like ones made by a single director, since this usually adds greater cohesion. I’m thinking along the lines of “Paisa” (1946) or “Robot Stories” (2003), though it isn’t always a hard rule. “Fantasia” (1940), for instance, is one of my favorites despite several directors while I consider Vittorio De Sica’s “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” (1963) quite undeserving of its Oscar. I’ve already ragged on Jarmusch’s “Mystery Train” (1989), but I’m actually a bit curious about his “Night on Earth” (1991).

I was recently disappointed by “Pearls of the Deep” (1966), an omnibus central to the Czech New Wave. Despite featuring shorts by a who’s-who lineup of Czech greats like Jiri Menzel, Jan Nemec, Evald Schorm, Věra Chytilova, Jaromil Jires, it almost never rises out of mediocrity. It deserves its place in the history books far more than its place on my DVD shelf.

I’ve had better luck with anime anthologies, which tend to be SF-themed and pretty creative. Their inherently hit-or-miss nature and diverse artistic styles tends to prevent them from being masterpieces while guaranteeing that everyone will find something to their taste. My friend Mad Dog introduced me to “Neo Tokyo” (1986) and “Memories” (1995). I had to track down the somewhat rarer “Robot Carnival” (1987) on my own.

Sometimes it helps to have a unifying theme or an interesting frame story to tie the segments together. More often than not, this involves something incredibly banal or cheap like acquaintances telling tales around a camp fire, a child falling asleep in a haunted house or a writer searching for inspiration (1924’s “Waxworks”). I haven’t yet seen very many of the omnibuses tied together by a single object, of which there are many, but it’s a technique I enjoy in non-anthology films like “Winchester ‘73” (1950), “The Earrings of Madame de…” (1953) and “Money” (1983).

I remember thinking that the connective thread of “Heavy Metal,” a glowing green orb of great power and infinite evil, only proved just how often hack writers of degenerate fantasy/horror/SF already rely on glowing orbs or great power and infinite evil or their equally clichéd equivalents. Its enduring popularity makes me sad.

Two of my favorite frame stories feature much more intriguing and frankly bizarre concepts:

“The Illustrated Man” (1969) stars Rod Steiger as a hobo whose body is almost completely covered in tattoos (yes, even there). A younger, more naïve hobo camps with him one night, learns the supernatural history of the illustrations and discovers that staring into them brings them to life as strange, pessimistic science-fiction tales. Steiger and a particularly pretty Claire Bloom are recycled in most of the segments, each based on shorts by Ray Bradbury.

Then there’s “Dreams That Money Can Buy” (1947), which I just watched recently. The title alone would have drawn me in, but learning that it consisted of shorts by such major surrealist figures as Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Alexander Calder, Fernand Leger and Hans Richter absolutely sold me. John Cage and Darius Milhaud provide some of the music. The frame story is the noirish tale of a penniless man with the ability to see and sell dreams, a skill that turns into a highly in-demand enterprise. Surprisingly, it’s Man Ray who creates the biggest dud, despite more experience behind that camera than all save Richter.

Today, anthology films seem a lot less popular, though I know they’re lurking here and there. I catch the occasional example when they get a lot of media attention, like “The Animatrix” (2003), “Coffee and Cigarettes” (2003) or “Paris, je t’aime” (2006). They’ve been largely replaced by hyperlink cinema; multi-threaded plots tied together by loose connections or a single focal event (think “Amores Perros” or “Magnolia” to name just a couple), but I think they continue to be a worthwhile way of packaging oft-neglected shorts.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Review of Fruit of Paradise

Adam and Eve, bathed in glowing textures of leaves, pebbles, flowers and bark, descend a grassy slope and slip into a pond. Their movements are tentative and yet stiff and choreographed. They wear nothing, but are wrapped snuggly in double-exposures of nature-imagery tinted in bright autumn colors. Passages from Genesis are chanted as part of the angelic score.

This prologue to Vera Chytilova “Fruit of Paradise” (1970) might easily serve as a standalone short, but it also works as a fitting introduction to this odd adaptation of the Biblical fall. It confirms Chytilova’s commitment to powerful visual impressions, multilayered freeform symbolism and winking witty anarchy. “Fruit of Paradise” is an experimental film that speaks in a similar visual vocabulary as “Daisies” (1966), the audacious era-defining Czech film that established Chytilova’s reputation, but without really feeling like it repeats itself.

The film follows Eva’s relationship with two men after she bites into forbidden fruit under a tree at a gorgeous garden retreat. Her stern husband finds little joy in the overgrown paradise and frequently flirts with other vacationers. The handsome if rather menacing Josef is an increasingly preoccupation for Eva despite his own incessant flirting and her growing certainty that he is a deranged serial killer. As she spends her days lolling on the beach, frolicking through the underbrush and exploring shady nooks, she feels the growing pressures of love, freedom, danger and temptation.

Following “Fruit of Paradise” as a conventional story, say a love triangle or a murder mystery, is almost entirely impossible. The narrative progress is much like an extended camping trip, with plenty of room to play around and little need for drama or dialogue. The tone is usually lighthearted, to the point where scenes that would typically involve tension or fear are subverted. Joseph, in particular, bounces back and forth from jolly skirt-chaser to intimidating villain quite erratically.

That’s not to say that the film is in any way boring. The surreal carefree atmosphere is quite welcoming, and draws the viewer into Eva’s miniature ambling adventures. Her curiosity and mischievousness are infectious.

Meanwhile, Zdenek Liska’s rapturous nearly wall-to-wall score envelops us in an unfettered, often exuberant, soundscape where harmonized voices or lilting instruments sound off at the slightest provocation. Taken along with his work for Vlacil’s “Valley of the Bees” and “Marketa Lazarova,” Liska is becoming a fast favorite for me.

After the first few loosely-connected episodes the feeling of confused anarchy gradually gives way to an understanding of the underlying organization. Scenes are constructed around visual motifs, based around bold points of contrast nestled within the sand and stone or the grass and leaves. Sometimes these contrasts might be built around the shock of seeing elegant Victorian furniture in places more suitable to park benches.

Occasionally the contrasts are based around movement, like a biker or frolicker, passing through the leisurely stillness of nature. Usually Chytilova has figures move in fluid graceful arc, fitting with gentle winds and unrushed pace, but sometimes she drops frames or manipulates the speed to make the characters seem like jerky marionettes.

Most often, the contrast is a spot of bright orange or red set against the greenery.

These sharp highlights not only guide the eye, they are also central to shaping our mood, emotions and even our interpretations. Chytilova is confident enough in her style to accept the ambiguity this creates, since reactions to such compositions necessarily vary from viewer to viewer. There are many occasions where objects are clearly meant to have very specific meanings, but it’s the visual presentation of the objects that tells us how to interpret them.

As an example, one might take a scene where Eva violently plays the drums in a dusty attic. One could certainly ask “What do the drums mean?” especially since they don’t’ seem to fit with the other props we’ve seen in the film. Still, I think a better avenue towards understanding is to ask “How does it feel to play the drums?” and to examine the visual and aural sensations that Chytilova is trying to convey.

Unraveling the allegory at hand might at first seem to be quite exhausting, but Chytilova doesn’t ask us to switch into academic mode to enjoy or even understand the film. I think there’s quite a few forbidden fruits planted for the audience to savor, particularly a gleeful hedonism for texture, detail and music. The religious references are not to be thrown away, but they are there more to shape our interpretation rather than to define it; to set our minds in motion rather than to nail it in place.

I like to think of Chytilova’s style as a combination of “universal” symbols and personal inflections where cinematography literally colors our interpretation or potentially undermines it. This helps explain the way a single symbol-object can have two or more potentially inconsistent meanings for the director. One example is the way “forbidden fruit” is used as a mark of rebellion and transgression in “Daisies” and as a symbol of awakening, temptation and disillusionment in “Fruit of Paradise.” Sometimes the connotation of a symbol can change many times within a single film.

This is part of why I feel the director’s films resist straightforward feminist readings. As a female director who prefers female protagonists and adopts many of the stereotyped mainstays of feminist art (nature themes, sensation-driven narratives, anti- institutionalism, rejection of psychoanalytic theory, etc.), Chytilova is too often pigeon-holed as purely preoccupied with gender issues. Like most surrealists, I think she has eclectic interests and multiple goals, many of them quite nuanced and personal. In appreciating her films, one must be careful not to warp her intentions in the places where a classical feminist mold doesn’t fit.

If you’re a fan of “Daisies,” or the brand of visually accomplished surrealism I’m often advocating (“Valerie and Her Week of Wonders,” “The Hourglass Sanatorium,” “Eden and After,” “El Topo,” “A Zed and Two Noughts,” etc.) then this is another film worth checking out. This formerly very rare film is now readily available through Netflix thanks to a not-to-shabby release by Facets.

Walrus Rating: 7.5

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Iceberg Arena: Czech Yourself Before You Wreck Your Spaceship

Continuing my series of 3-way Iceberg Arenas focusing on the science-fiction films of various countries (see Britain and the Soviet Union), I now come to the Czech Republic. As both a genre and a country that I have a special connection with, I feel a deep affection for Czech SF despite only recent acquaintance. Notwithstanding their obscurity and datedness, I think they are well-worth watching today.

Ikarie XB-1 (1963)

Ikarie XB-1 is a 22nd century spaceship sent on a multi-month journey to our nearest neighbors, Alpha Centauri, in the hopes of finding intelligent life. On the way, the crew, including a robot named Patrick, must deal with a variety of problems and adventures. Boredom, claustrophobia and homesickness wear down the initial euphoria of the mission. The discovery of a derelict space station provokes their curiosity and, after the discovery of human corpses inside, their fear. Most dangerous of all, their unwitting proximity to a radioactive dark star is draining their energy and turning one crew member into a potentially homicidal psychopath. Note that the English version of Ikarie is Icarus, the character in Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun.

“Forbidden Planet” (1956) is often cited as the primary influence on the 1966 Star Trek TV show and as the prototype for the successful brand of space opera that would make the genre popular. Yet “Ikarie XB-1” (1963) deserves recognition, too, as a more mature, sophisticated and consistent work that really dug into the world-building mechanics of what life in space would be like. Their culture is detailed through food, recreation, dance, romance and history as much as by technology.

“Ikarie XB-1” is also an early example of sci-fi horror with powerful scenes frequently copied by later films. For instance, the roving flashlights of a crew exploring a ghost ship in space or the “villain loose aboard a spaceship” premise seen in films like “Alien” and “Sunshine.” Yet for all that the film is unusually optimistic, featuring a triple dénouement that includes a tense shootout, a shocking revelation about extraterrestrial life and the first pregnancy in space (a metaphor brilliantly developed by “2001: A Space Odyssey” several years later).

But is “Ikarie XB-1” more than just a collection of ahead-of-its-time ideas and “missing-link” influences of chief interest only to SF buffs and historians? I think so. The Zdenek Liska score is fantastic, particularly the proto-electronic opening. The set design is dazzling, clearly pumping up the production values and really giving the film quite a bit of space-age 60’s atmosphere. Especially impressive is the number of shipboard sets (most contemporaneous SF used one or two) that span the cathedral-esque bridge, exercise facility, lounge (with mezzanine), mess hall, private living quarters and mainframe core (called the robotics facility in my translation).

The characters are a little dry and I found them slightly difficult to keep track of, but the sense of a multifaceted futuristic society aboard a self-sufficient spacecraft is well realized through their relationships and recreations. The pacing is pretty uneven, but the action never hinges upon a single issue or threat allowing several highlights to punctuate the mission. Critics, censors and distributors during its limited American release (by AIP, who characteristically brutalized the ending) didn’t like the hints of propaganda, but I think that it’s handled tastefully and smartly: the writing on the dead spaceship is clearly English and the explanation for its demise is related to gambling, greed and the hoarding of WMDs.

The End of August at the Hotel Ozone (1967)

Aside from sporting one of the coolest titles in all of cinema, “The End of August at the Hotel Ozone” also presents one of the most depressing visions of the apocalypse in a subgenre (post-apocalyptic SF) literally defined by depressing visions of the apocalypse. I’m especially drawn to the subgenre (see another Iceberg Arena), and this low-budget entry provides a particularly pessimistic, savage and yet low-key example.

A band of eight female scavengers roam the uncivilized wasteland of Earth looking for food and ammunition. Their behavior is instinctual and animalistic, driven by the crude fundamentals of survival and yet hampered by an ignorance and amorality that borders on self-destruction. Only one woman, the elderly emaciated leader, is old enough to remember the world before an unspecified nuclear disaster wiped it out. The other women, some of them not more than girls, are almost an unrecognizable species in their primitiveness. The director does not shy away from the boredom or the brutality of their meager existence, including such acts as the apparently real-life shooting of a dog and the still-living slaughter of a cow for food.

Having gone many years since their last encounter with any other member of humanity, the gang stumbles upon an old man struggling vainly to preserve the fragments of culture and civilization that he still possesses. His eccentric yet charmingly domestic revival of music, ranching and even chivalry awakens long-buried nostalgia in the gang’s leader and a timid love begins to bloom. Yet the ravages of age and radiation, the friction between the nomadic and settled life and the paranoid regression in the young feral generation leaves little opportunity for hope.

The black and white cinematography emphasizes the crumbled decay and shrinking signs of civilization with bleak, unflinching detachment. The torn-down, shriveled visuals, minimal dialogue and “there’s no rush now that everyone’s dead” pacing remind me of later films like “The Last Combat” (1983), though “Hotel Ozone” is unusual in that it doesn’t even try to give its lone survivors a sense of existential hipness or post-apocalyptic renaissance-man resourcefulness. Set several decades after the crisis, the film is not concerned with modernist commentary on the mistakes of the past. Nor is the future fate of man still open for debate: human life is doomed.

If this doesn’t sound like a good time, you’re right, it’s not. This is not a post-apocalyptic movie that has any room for Will Smith, animal sidekicks, comic relief, special effects or action scenes involving legions of vampires. However, it’s probably not too unrealistic and it deserves to be seen by anyone as fascinated by end of the world scenarios as myself.

Dinner for Adele (1977)

If you’re in the mood for something lighter, than “Dinner for Adele” might be for you. I’ve reviewed maverick madcap director Oldritch Lipsky before (see the classic Eastern western “Lemonade Joe”) and this films levels similar satire but directs it at the mystery genre, specifically lampooning the Nick Carter detective series that still today continues its 100+ year publishing history after dabbling in popular comic book and radio show formats.

In “Dinner for Adele” Nick Carter is charged with solving the murder of a canine in the family of a wealthy and beautiful Prague maiden. The clues point towards a carnivorous plant, leading Carter to suspect his longtime nemesis Baron von Kratzmar, a criminal mastermind known as “The Gardener,” whom Carter thought he killed years earlier in a swamp confrontation (an event we will witness, humorously, from both points of view). Kratzmar was incenses as a young botanist student by his poor grades and vowed to prove his talent and score his revenge by musically hypnotizing Adele, his bloodthirsty flower, into eating a former professor and his beautiful daughter. Olga Schoberova co-stars.

If “Ikarie XB-1” is about an optimistic future and “Hotel Ozone” is about a pessimistic one, “Dinner for Adele” is about a fun-loving return to the past. Yet despite the whimsical tone and vintage setting, “Dinner for Adele” freely makes use of SF inventiveness in a Jules Verne sort of way. Kratzmar, for instance, babbles his mad scientist jargon with the best of them and even Carter can, with little foreshadowing, whip out a solar powered laser if need be. The stop-motion and animated special effects for Adele were done by Jan Svankmajer himself and won the Czech’s their only Saturn award.

The real cornerstone of “Dinner for Adele” is its humor, which might be a little broad and wacky for the art film crowd, but which never fails to amuse me with its creative absurdity. Some favorite examples: Our damsel in distress tells Carter that she sealed off the room where her dog disappeared to preserve any clues and, expecting to see the usual band of yellow tape across the door, we find the Victorian entrance has been bricked off. Nick Carter, of course, karate chops his way through. Or another: during a climactic air balloon chase, Carter’s gun explodes in his hand at a crucial moment causing him to cry out “Material fatigue!” as the villain escapes. Despite the setback he’s content (he gets paid either way), until a change of wind blows in his favor.

Lipsky’s witty dialogue survives translation in the two versions I’ve seen, while the inflections and melodramatic direction need little help to understand. It’s kind of a toss up as to whether the visuals are better in this or “Lemonade Joe.” Given that Svankmajer’s effects are more for laughs than for horror or realism, I’d say “Lemonade Joe” is the more refined and innovative presentation, but the Facet’s aspect-ratio cropping of the latter seriously compromises it. I can’t wait to watch more of Lipsky’s films, especially “Happy End,” “The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians” and “I Killed Einstein, Gentleman.”


While I adore all three films, there’s no question in my mind that “Ikarie XB-1” is the champion. It’s high-style, well-thought-out foundations for space opera surpasses retro-kitsch to become a convincing vision of the future. Now that it is available in a clean, uncut transfer with passable subtitles, it deserves to be widely seen and finally acknowledged as one of the great, groundbreaking works in SF history. Even casual fans of the genre should place this on their must-see list. As a side note, I now have a 1963 film that handily defeats “Tom Jones” for my SF-themed Oscar revisionism.

Winner: Ikarie XB-1

But where can I get these films?

“The End of August at the Hotel Ozone” is available through Facets on a manageable transfer with an insert booklet. You can get it on Netflix. The other films are a bit harder, but both can be found through dvdr.cz. Click on the British flag for the English version. The current currency exchange is about $1 (USD) to 18 Czech koruny (CZK) and expect to pay a lot for shipping. I had to apply the subtitles for “Dinner for Adele” through some frustrating computer piddling, but they are easy enough to find free online. If you want a subtitled version and don’t mind not having the case you can purchase them from one of my new favorite rare film dealers, AllCluesNoSolutions or legally torrent either film.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Great Train Wreck Quiz Concludes

The Great Train Wreck Quizery has come to a close, with a shockingly close finish!

Winner: Jason Ray with a score of 37.
Second place: Joe D'Augstine (of Film Forno) with a score of 36.5.
Third place: Jerry Bates with a score of 23.

Thanks to everyone who participated! You'll find the answer key below with some commentary on the films.

Answer Key:

Films with an asterisk are train wrecks. Those without them feature train wrecks.

*Mystery Train – Jarmusch’s musician-studded anthology film has a couple of strong moments, but it can’t stay on the rails long enough to make any sort of coherent or lasting impact.

*Pearl Harbor – Several sequences with trains, but air and sea are the transports of choice for this island military base infamous as the site of a national tragedy and the subject of an artistic travesty.

Ballad of a Soldier – Beautiful anti-heroic Soviet socialist realism film primarily set aboard a train. The protagonist isn’t in it at the time, but it gets bombed by the Germans.

The Train – Perhaps the archetypical action movie with train wrecks, John Frankenheimer’s WWII film follows Burt Lancaster and his French Resistance cell as they try to stop a Nazi (Paul Scofield) from making off with France’s greatest works of art.

*The Apple – Set in the mid-90’s as only the 80’s could imagine it, this musical about hippies rebelling against a fascist glam-rock record label is a delicious feast of kitsch overkill and cult pretentions. I put it next to Ballad of a Soldier to trick people into grouping them together as musicals.

The General – Still my favorite Buster Keaton comedy with a rightfully famous shot of the titular train diving into a river.

Spies – Fritz Lang’s spy epic may not be quite as good as Dr. Mabuse, but it’s a masterpiece nonetheless. The dastardly climactic train wreck is a classic.

The Wheel – Abel Gance’s 4.5 hour marathon tale of trains and incest is not likely to be everyone’s cup of tea. One highlight, however, is the heavy symbolism and rapid montage of the train crash scene.

Arsenal – Dovzhenko’s Ukranian montage experiment is an obtuse artistic implosion for many, but I kind of like it… and it uses a train crash to symbolize the failure of naïve, headless revolution.

The Bad Sleep Well – Thanks be to Criterion for bringing deserving attention to this underrated corporate thriller by Kurosawa. It includes a downbeat finale in which a character’s “accidental suicide” is handled by putting his alcohol-soaked car in the way of a speeding train.

*Six Days Seven Nights – This misconceived romantic comedy about a plane crash is a complete train crash.

The Fugitive – This oft-referenced adaptation of a TV show now plays, fittingly, all the time on TV. The protagonist, Dr. Richard Kimble, partially owes his escape to his prison bus getting smacked into by a train.

*The Avengers – Audaciously horrendous spy thriller about an evil genius who dresses his henchmen as teddy bears, arms himself with mechanical bees and blackmails the world with weather. I count myself lucky; the original cut ran more than an hour longer than what made it to the screens!

*Zardoz – Simultaneously one of the best and worst films of the 1970’s (depending on your perspective) this pulsating philosophical mishmash of inspired madness includes Sean Connery in a ponytail, a giant floating stone head, Wizard of Oz references and a final battle inside a crystal… but no train wrecks.

*Boarding Gate – One of the few films I’ve seen in theaters recently where people actually walked out, this Michael Madsen / Asia Argento thriller ranges from uncomfortable to excruciating. Yet it somehow manages to be a fascinating failure.

*Heaven’s Gate – I’ve already ranted at length, but this notoriously self-indulgent western flop was, in my opinion, unredeemed by its longer, even more indulgent director’s cut.

*Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Terry Gilliam, Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Depp seems like a perfect combination, but the result is like mixing three jigsaw puzzle together. Not without its zany moments though still quite disappointing.

Tideland – Although many critics billed this as a train wreck, I consider it a fantastic evolution of Gilliam’s aesthetic. Besides, it somewhat self-consciously ends with train wreck.

*Jubilee – Derek Jarman’s cult riff on royalty and punk culture transports Queen Elizabeth I into a dystopic future, but fails to do anything interesting with the premise. Raucous noise and nose-thumbing ensues.

Back to the Future Part III (1990) – Popular threequel takes us to the old west where everyone’s favorite mad scientist, Doc, races a train off a cliff in order to reach the speed necessary for time travel.

*Camp Nowhere (1994) – Miserable, but thankfully forgettable, family-fodder flick that contributed nothing to film culture except a target for sarcastic references and Jessica Alba.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit – This impressive mix of slapstick comedy, noir mystery and cartoon animation has drawn me back dozens of times. It has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it train crash near the very end when the dipmobile smashes into Toon Town.

Night on the Galactic Railroad – This beloved children’s tale of a space train that transports souls to heaven had enough weirdness already without the director making the characters cats and the chapter titles Esperanto. There’s some confusion over whether the train crashes into an iceberg, but the context is clear that it is actually an ocean liner and some creative animation. While I actually think the film is rather pleasant, its glacial pacing has led some to dub it Night on the Paralytic Railroad.

Steamboy – This epic anime is a bit overwrought, but how could any steampunk film do without a steam engine, in this case crashing into a car driven by villains near the start of the adventure.

*Polar Express – A misguided CG adaptation of a children’s book that jettisons all the charm and doesn’t even crash, except metaphorically.

Horror Express – This Christopher Lee horror film plays like “The Thing” aboard a train, but without any of the talent or production values. It ends with the locomotive going over a cliff and I say good riddance.

Final Destination – I can’t really stay made at sloppy, contrived horror films especially when they are just an excuse for endless near-death cliffhangers, including a train pulverizing a car whose engine has died.

GoldenEye – Actually one of my favorite bond films, due mostly to its celebrated videogame adaptation. GoldenEye features a train that explodes just moments after Bond’s ejection.

*Octopussy – A low-point in the James Bond franchise (during the already mediocre valley of the Roger Moore era), this one also gave the series its most embarrassing title. Its long train sequence almost ends in an explosion, but Bond defuses the device in time.

*Casino Royale (1967) – Somehow the dream-team cast on this James Bond comedy never gels, hampered by one of the most nonsensical scripts ever scribbled and frightfully inconsistent directing.

*Antz – This lazy, ingratiating animation enjoyed mild success despite being overshadowed by “A Bug’s Life,” which wasn’t even one of Pixar’s best.

The French Connection – I’ve never been terribly in love with this influential police drama, but it does have some great scene, including the climactic chase of an elevated train and its abrupt stop… by another train.

*Quintet – Robert Altman was able to breathe new life into many genres with his inspired revisionism, but this overstuffed frozen SF bore was DOA.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – One of my favorite westerns and a favorite for many others, too. The dashing bandit duo use too much dynamite trying to crack a payroll safe and end up blowing up a boxcar.

*The Newton Boys – Richard Linklater’s attempt at a straightforward genre flick is clumsy and lackluster, less a spectacular failure than a drawn-out derailment. It features a famous real-life train robbery, but no destruction results.

*Destry Rides Again – While it’s far from the first or last time that a comedy western misconstrued stupid for funny, “Destry Rides Again” marks a low point for me in the once-popular cycle.

Closely Watched Trains – How could I not sneak a Czech film onto the list? Its surprising tone-shifting ending features the most last-minute train destruction on the list.

The Namesake – A train crash is the stimulus for an Indian’s journey to American and his odd choice of Gogol for his son’s name. Mira Nair’s film is typically safe and overrated, but confident and ultimately satisfying.

Zentropa – Lars von Trier’s early post-war art-noir is a mesmerizing, heady and deeply underappreciated. The indecisive hero plants a bomb aboard a train, but later goes back to defuse it… only to have it blow up anyway.

*Lady in the Water – My mixed feelings towards Shyamalan tipped over the edge in this misguided self-congratulatory fantasy involving narfs (because mermaids were copy-written?), a giant eagle and an apartment building full of gag-worthy acting.

Unbreakable – Surviving a train wreck proves to be the telltale evidence of superhero powers for Bruce Willis in Shyamalan’s dark, thoughtful thriller. It has a great ending twist, spoiled within minutes by a whimper of a conclusion.

*Hudson Hawk – Though this shockingly misconceived action-comedy should have set off sirens at every point in production, producers nevertheless threw $65 million at it, thus proved they were every bit as stupid as the script. Not based on a comic book, but I placed it here because it feels like it was.

*Batman and Robin –Joel Schumacher stabbed millions of Batman fans in the eyes and ears over and over again and yet still walks our streets a free man. Won’t somebody think of the children?

Spiderman 2 – Though Peter Parker saves all the passengers of a NYC elevated train hurtling towards disaster, the front compartment crashes through a barrier and derails.

*Spiderman 3 – It has a fight in a subway, but a passing train only takes minor damage from the villainous Sandman’s face getting rubbed into it. In that scene as in most of the others, this threequel proves to be a catastrophic accident achieving laughter and tears for all the wrong reasons.

Danger Diabolik – Fantastically kitschy Italian jewel thief comic adaptation with tons of inventive wit. The hero makes off with Italy’s national supply of gold by dropping a train into a river.

The Greatest Show on Earth – Often derided as a rambling garish extravaganza, it’s poetic justice that this circus tale winds up smashed on the tracks.

Bridge Over the River Kwai – Alec Guiness plays a British POW who’s so proud of the fruits of his forced labor – a railroad bridge for transporting German supplies – that he can’t bear to blow it up. I won’t spoil what happens next, but you can probably guess.

*Around the World in 80 Days (1956) – I’ve already lambasted this star-studded wreck, but it deserves another kick in its bloated belly. It does feature trains fairly prominently, but they don’t crash: they just reach the end of the line.

*Crash (1996) – Not to be mistaken with the Oscar-winning 2004 film about class and race, Cronenberg’s earlier work is a bitter cocktail of car wrecks (sorry, no trains) and deviant sex that almost captures the controversial vision of J. G. Ballard’s book.

Special groupings (0.5 pts each):

WWII films: Pearl Harbor, Ballad of a Soldier, The Train
Silent films: The General, Spies, The Wheel, Arsenal
Starring Harrison Ford: Six Days Seven Nights, The Fugitive
Starring Sean Connery: The Avengers, Zardoz
Adaptations of 1960’s TV shows: The Fugitive, The Avengers
Directed by Terry Gilliam: Tideland, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Time Travel: Jubilee, Back to the Future Part III
Starring Christopher Lloyd: Back to the Future Part III, Camp Nowhere, Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Note the first two also both star Tom Wilson).
Animated: Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Steamboy, Night on the Galactic Railroad, Polar Express (Note that the middle two are both Japanime)
James Bond films: Goldeneye, Octopussy, Casino Royale
Note that for the next three connections, the villain in one movie will be a protagonist in the next.
Starring Woody Allen: Casino Royale, Antz
Starring Gene Hackman: Antz, The French Connection
Starring Fernando Rey: The French Connection, Quintet
Starring Paul Newman: Quintet Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Westerns: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Newton Boys, Destry Rides Again
(OR alternatively) Train robbery westerns: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Newton Boys
Foreign films (no point awarded): Closely Watched Trains, The Namesake, Zentropa
Directed by M. Knight Shyamalan: Lady in the Water, Unbreakable
Starring Bruce Willis: Unbreakable, Hudson Hawk
Comic Book Adaptations: Danger Diabolik, Batman and Robin, Spiderman 2 & 3 (Sorry, no credit for just pointing out shared actors/directors/crew for the Spiderman movies)
Best Picture Oscar Winners: Bridge Over the River Kwai, The Greatest Show on Earth, Around the World in 80 Days

Points possible: 25 wrecks + 25 non-wrecks + 20 groupings = 50 + 10 = 60

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Review of Son of the White Mare (Fehérlófia)

The Czech Republic rarely gets the acknowledgement for its cinematic achievements that it deserves, but Hungary, where delightful obscurities apparently hang from the trees, is perhaps even more overlooked. My positive experiences with “Kontroll,” “My Twentieth Century” and “The Werckmeister Harmonies” encouraged me to rummage further into their rich film history. Some of the greatest rewards have been the works of Miklos Jansco and the monumental Bela Tarr film “Satantango” (recently released by Facets).

Falling further down the rabbit hole, I found references to a Hungarian animation called “Son of the White Mare” (1981) aka “Fehérlófia.” Occasional fan-subbed DVDs pop up on Ebay, but I didn’t have much luck. Fortunately the film has been uploaded onto youTube and the subtitles can be found here. I formatted the srt file into a 7 page transcript, printed it and followed along while I watched. Due to the minimal dialog I found this relatively easy, but to be honest, you could probably just enjoy the visuals alone. I’ll provide a plot summary which might lend some context to anyone interested:

The white mare seeks refuge from the gods in a mountainous tree and gives birth to three humanoid sons. The youngest is told by his celestial father that if he breastfeeds until he is 21, it will endow him with the strength to pull the world-tree from its 77 roots. Thus he earns his name, Treeshaker, and inadvertently drains away his equestrian mother’s life.

To fulfil her dying wish, Treeshaker recruits his brothers Stonecrumbler and Ironrubber and descends into the underworld. There, with the help of a goblin, he rescues three princesses from rotating palaces protected by multi-headed dragons. With the maidens elevated to safety, Treeshaker rides a griffin back to surface by feeding it 12 oxen, 12 barrels of wine and his own leg.

If the plot sounds outlandish, I should mention that it’s based in Hungarian folk legend and is told in the fashion of an epic fable or ancient odyssey. There’s lots of explicit numerology (3s, 7s, 12s), arcane symbolism and superhuman events. Often the actual content of the story seems ludicrous to someone without the proper cultural background, but it remains simple enough to follow the action. For example, I don’t understand why goblins get their powers from flowing billowy beards or how one manages to forge a severed beard into an indestructible sword, but it’s surprisingly clear that such is the case.

Much of the fun of the story comes from its unabashed disregard for classical physics. Like in Greek or Roman mythology, feats of colossal strength are presented on a scale no mortal could reasonably accomplish, but the hyperbole is presented in good humor, with the lessons learned focusing on the importance of determination, confidence and bravery [and breastfeeding].

Director Marcell Jankovics refracts the story through modern times, adding layers of psychedelic fantasy and philosophical undertones. One such imposition is a seven-headed dragon that takes the form of a heavily-armed robotic tank. It’s trigger-happy, smoke-belching assault set on a silver field is some sort of crazy anti-war allegory. It’s more monstrous brother happens to be a twelve-headed dragon that takes the form of a city skyline, which morphs through a series of pixilated formations and rises inexorably from its own rubble. I think that has something to do with the evils of industrialized civilization, but to be honest, I couldn’t tell what the hell it all meant.

As the descriptions so far might have hinted, Jankovics’ visual wizardry is absolutely mind-blowing. The artwork departs from conventions with avant-garde abandon, mesmerizing the viewer with shifting, spinning, blistering, flaring bursts of Day-Glo color. The three sons of the white mare have flaming orb-heads that emit glowing halos and dress in contrasting theme colors (yellow/orange, red/orange and blue/yellow) that shift and merge. The backdrops are whirling kaleidoscopes of splintered branches, patterned embroidery and wonderland geography.

While naysayers are likely to dismiss the phosphorescent phantasmagoric eye-candy as hippy fuel for acid trips, it’s hard to deny the ambition and artistry in the visual design. Always in motion, “The Son of the White Mare” redefines traditional editing with visual effects that blend, unfold or morph into new scenes, often presenting bizarrely distorted perspectives and unpredictable transformations. Even given the folktale rhythm of the story (where everything happens in batches of three), the films seems to hurtle forward with creative energy.

The music is keyed to the action with grandiose space-age electronica, but probably more important to the atmosphere is the voice-acting. Whether it’s the raspy whisper of god, the cheerful bravado of stonecrusher, the sing-song drone of the griffin or the booming proclamations of a dragon, the voices go a long way towards defining the personalities of the characters. No understanding of Hungarian is required.

This neglected masterpiece is essential viewing for alternative animation buffs and should really be brought out in a pristine home release. I’m not laying any bets though.

Walrus Rating: 9.5

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Review of Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion

After my review of “Valley of the Bees” last month, there was stretch of inactivity on the Film Walrus, owing to jury duty and the convergence of several long-missed friends converging on my apartment. Aside from playing plenty of Cineplexity and turning the presidential debate into a drinking game (one shot every time someone says “maverick,” “change,” or “fundamental”) we also had a late-night giallo triple-feature that included Luciano Ercoli’s “Death Walks on High Heels” and “Death Walks at Midnight.”

Though it wasn’t really planned this way, a few days later Netflix sent me Luciano Ercoli’s earlier giallo “Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion” (1970) that shares a director, writer (Ernesto Gastaldi) and two cast members (Susan Scott and Simon Andreu) with the two other features. It stars Dagmar Lassander, a copper-haired beauty who’s been in several intriguingly-titled gialli that I’ve yet to see including “Hatchet for the Honeymoon,” “The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire” and “Vice Wears Black Hose.”

The film opens with Minou (Lassander) wandering around her fashionable house kicking back whiskey and popping tranquilizers while mentally vowing to give up both. She meditates on mild schemes to make her husband jealous and sadly notes to herself that she dresses too conservatively. Judge for yourself:

[Image: This skimpy, hot-pink dress with revealing stitching is what Minou considers as “too much like a housewife.” She corrects the problem by undoing a couple more of the stitches.]

Shortly thereafter she goes for a stroll along a sketchy stretch of beach and is assaulted by a creepy dude with a blade-cane (Simon Andreu, up to his usual inexplicable knife-throwing). He accuses her husband of murder and almost rapes her, but says they won’t have sex until she begs for it. On that disturbing note, he leaves.

As in a lot of Gastaldi screenplays, nobody reacts in ways that any sensible person would. Minou heads over to a seedy bar for some more drinks reasoning that “the police just make you fill in forms.” Her husband, Peter, laughs it off as “some sort of prank” and later accuses her of ruining his business plans by having “a run-in with a sex-killer.” Even her nymphomaniac best-friend Dominique (Susan Scott) muses enviously, “I’d have adored being violated.” Dominique attempts to cheer her up by inviting her over to look at her latest pornographic photo shoot. It works.

[Image: For Susan Scott fans, the montage that follows this shot is likely worth the price of admission alone. For good reason, it can’t be shown here.]

The story starts to evolve into a typical giallo when the assailant calls Minou with recorded evidence of Peter murderous behavior. Minou realizes just how much she loves Peter and agrees to pay blackmail which, of course, must come in the form of sexual favors. Afterwards, the villain reveals that the recording was faked (Dominique: “Well if he went through all that trouble just to sleep with you, he deserves something.”) and proceeds to blackmail her again, this time with photos of her indiscretion. By the time she finally gets Peter and the police involved, no evidence can be found and everyone thinks she’s crazy (the alcohol/tranquilizer combo isn’t helping her case).

The plot ends up being fairly predictable, not least because there are so few suspects and one can quickly eliminate all the ones that seem guilty. The combination of blackmail, paranoia and a largely irrelevant subplot involving an experimental decompression chamber keeps things moving along, but it’s not quite interesting or twisty enough to really satisfy. Write it off to this being an early outing for the writer and director.

Still, “Forbidden Photos” has its share of pleasures, typically in the form that I’ve come to expect from Luciano Ercoli films: kitschy fashion and set design, inadvertently hilarious dialogue and red-herrings, spurts of outrageous camerawork, beautiful actresses and Susan Scott sassily stealing every scene. Only contrived murder scenes are conspicuously absent. Let’s take the set design first:

The first screenshot above shows Peter/Minou’s white-themed cozy décor featuring hot-pink rugs, weird but generally neutral art and sphere lighting. Compare it to the second shot, displaying the blackmailer’s sordid den with its shadowy stripes, miscellaneous evidence of occultism and crimson lighting. The contrast might be overkill, but that’s giallo atmosphere for you (impressive considering the low budget) and it effectively hints at the level of repression in Minou’s life.

[Image: During a party with Peter and Dominique shortly after her rendezvous with the blackmailer, Minou can’t shake the memories from her mind or the nagging fear that she may have enjoyed the kinky affair. It’s almost as if there was some sort of symbolic undertone in the moments like the one shown here that keep reminding her of sex.]

Minou is somewhat unconvincingly presented as a naïve homebody (remember when the opening scene tried to tell use she dressed conservatively?). She is mildly scandalized by Dominique’s sexually free lifestyle, and furtively curious about it. With Peter frequently away on business, one could almost (given a better screenplay) believe that her experiences were the product of repressed fantasies.

[Image: Here we see what Minou typically enjoys doing in bed: reading comics and engaging in rousing bouts of chess with her husband.]

The blackmailer’s apartment is first introduced to us by (1) a disembodied plaster hand on the wall; distinctly creepy and even a bit sexual in its languorous pose. This will be made quite explicit during Ercoli’s excellent post-coital shot, which tilts downward through (2) a series of beckoning and caressing sculpture hands to (3) Minou’s, which the camera follows across her (4) non-unsatisfied expression. The conflict between her sexual pleasure with an anonymous pervert and her honest love for the more conventional Peter creates the mental schism that leads her towards insanity.

[Images: See numbers in the previous paragraph. Note, too, the similarities between the plaster hand that greets Minou in screenshot #1 and her own hand being untied in image #3.]

The sequence with the plaster hands in stylish way of communicating the dark side of Minou’s world, made easy by the seamy and exotic mise-en-scene. It would presumably be much harder to bring out her day-to-day bourgeois existence through virtuoso camerawork, but Ercoli does so in a simple sequence I quite enjoyed. Returning to the party scene with Peter and Dominique we find Minou (with her hair worn up, of course) and the others sipping soup. The camera again follows hands, this time cutting between the characters and moving up and down from bowl to mouth throughout the delicate and civilized ritual of fine dining. It’s a neat touch bordering on subtlety (for Ercoli) to have the camera’s memory (it’s fixation on hands) mimic the operation of Minou’s memory (plagued by unbidden recollections of the affair).

On other occasions Ercoli uses body parts in less sophisticated ways.

[Image: Although, for the record, I admire the framing also.]

As for hilarious red-herring, I could have done with more, but “Forbidden Photos” does include one of my all time favorites. Minou and Peter get out of bed during a storm after hearing a noise in the other room. They enter to find a glass door open with a wet trail leading into the house. Tension mounts. Peter goes to investigate and… it turns out to be a turtle. Stupid? Maybe, but in Ercoli’s defense he’d actually forshadowed it early in the film.

[Image: A nefarious turtle accidently mistaken for the killer. At least it’s a break from the usual pet-cat-scare that horror movies never seem to tire of.]

I’ve saved the best for last, the moment in the giallo review where I sit back and let a montage of the outrageous fashion choices do the talking for me:

[Image: (Bottom) Italy may have a long tradition of elegant backless dresses, but it takes a giallo to come up with a sideless dress. In case the resolution isn’t high enough, it’s kept together by a few gossamer silver chains.]

“Forbidden Photos” is a notch below Ercoli’s two follow-up films, but still quite a bit of fun in much the same spirit. Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack should have given this one a slight edge, but it’s really one of his least impressive scores. Working out more elaborate screenplays and moving Susan Scott to the lead definitely puts “Death Walks at Midnight” and “Death Walks on High Heels” ahead, but they all share the amusing dialog, flamboyant fashion and excessive style that mark these as some of the most entertaining gialli ever made. Fans of the genre should scale up the scores below accordingly.

Walrus Rating: 6.0
For comparison,
Death Walks on High Heels : 6.5
Death Walks at Midnight: 7.0

Oh, and in case the title strikes you as confusing, it’s a play on the 1970 Italian film “Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion,” perhaps meant to capitalize on the latter’s foreign film Oscar-winning success. Today, however, the reference seems rather obscure.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Update on the Train Wreck Quiz

I've just started receiving the first entries for the great train wreck quizery, so I apologize for shaking things up. I've rounded out the list to an even 50 films (7 added, 1 removed, several rearranged). All scores from the original list will still count in full, but now there is more opportunities for points. I upped the ante to $25 to make up for the unexpected changes.

Since anyone can enter any number of times (within reason), those who have already submitted should feel free to update their entries for more points if they desire. I'll update the leader position shortly [now updated].

The deadline for the contest will be noon on October 17th, one week from today.

Good luck!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Great Train Wreck Quizery

It’s time for the moment you’ve all been waiting for: The Great Train Wreck Quizery! Below is a list of 50 films, half featuring train wrecks and half that are train wrecks. Your job is to identify which are which. Here’s how the scoring works:


Correct answers are worth 1 pt.

Incorrect answers lose you 0.5 pts. (It may be worthwhile to skip ones you don’t know rather than guessing). On tricky or questionable cases I may waive the deduction.

Pay attention to the order the films are listed in. Many films will share something in common with one or more of the films around it (e.g. the Spiderman films). Each group that you identify is worth a half point! You must give all the titles (with no extras) and explain what they have in common. Just having similar titles doesn’t count (those are just for fun!). Wrong answers will not get deductions.

Tie-breakers will go to the earlier submission.

Send your answers to filmwalrus@gmail.com. It suffices to simply copy-paste the list into an email and put a 1 in front of titles you think have wrecks and a 0 in front of titles that are wrecks (leaving non-guesses blank).

The winner will receive a $25 Amazon gift certificate. Katie and I will be the only judges.

[Updated 10/17/08] The quiz has now officially ended. Thank you, everyone who particpated!

Winner: 37 pts.

Here are some clues:
1) For a movie to count as having a train wreck a train must crash, derail or explode. The train may not necessarily be destroyed (i.e. it could wreck into something and keep on going).
2) For the purpose of this quiz, no film can count as both or neither. If a film has a train wreck it goes under the “has a” category even if it is also a raging mess. If a film does not have a train wreck, it goes under the “is a” heading even if you disagree about my disparaging assessment (besides, many of these films I actually like).
3) I’ve intentionally laid some traps so be on your toes.

The List:

Mystery Train (1989)
Pearl Harbor (2001)
Ballad of a Soldier (1959)
The Train (1964)
The Apple (1980)
The General (1927)
Spies (1928)
The Wheel (1923)
Arsenal (1928)
The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
Six Days Seven Nights (1998)
The Fugitive (1993)
The Avengers (1998)
Zardoz (1974)
Boarding Gate (2007)
Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
Tideland (2005)
Jubilee (1977)
Back to the Future Part III (1990)
Camp Nowhere (1994)
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)
Steamboy (2004)
Polar Express (2004)
Horror Express (1973)
Final Destination (2000)
GoldenEye (1995)
Octopussy (1983)
Casino Royale (1967)
Antz (1998)
The French Connection (1971)
Quintet (1979)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
The Newton Boys (1998)
Destry Rides Again (1939)
Closely Watched Trains (1966)
The Namesake (2006)
Zentropa (1991)
Lady in the Water (2006)
Unbreakable (2000)
Hudson Hawk (1991)
Batman & Robin (1997)
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Danger Diabolik (1968)
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
Bridge On the River Kwai (1957)
Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
Crash (1996)

Friday, October 3, 2008

Ramble on Trains

Today I’m just going to ramble a little about trains as thematic preparation for the next post: The Great Train Wreck Quizery. It’s the first follow-up to my Zombie Battle Quiz, and will hopefully inspire me to put together other random trivia test for you film aficionados out there. A little after the quiz I’ll post the answer key and award prizes.

Unlike cars, there’s something I love about trains. I don’t take it far enough to actually know much about the workings of trains or to engage in the birdwatching of the industrial age: trainspotting. I don’t even ride the rails very often, but I do find train trips extremely relaxing. The stretch from here in St. Louis up to Chicago is my favorite route, though it’s sometimes 6+ hours late. Closer to home is the Metrolink, St. Louis’s endearingly pompous light-rail transit system.

Trains were the first widespread form of mechanized transportation and became an international symbol of progress and freedom of travel, not to mention a classic cinematic cliche. They were once the toast of tycoons and hobos alike, changing the cultural landscape as much as the physical one. Yet perhaps what captures my imagination so much about trains is the loss of that empire; the sense that the era of locomotives is part of a mythical past.

I’m far from a rarity: train enthusiasts are a large group individually known as railfans. One of my college friends was once quite serious about tattooing an abstracted map of the Tokyo subway system onto his shoulder. Trains have featured prominently in paintings, novels (from Agatha Christie’s classic mystery “Murder on the Orient Express” to Geoff Ryman’s influential hypertext novel “253”), videogames (such as the groundbreaking strategy sim Railroad Tycoon and Syberia, one of the last great adventure games) and even music (Kraftwerk’s landmark “Trans-Europe Express”).

But of course, we’re here to talk about films. There’s no shortage of films about trains that I like (some more than others). Here’s a sample:

Blind Chance
Brief Encounter
Central Station
The Darjeeling Limited
Emperor of the North Pole
The Great Train Robbery
High Noon
The Lady Vanishes
The Metamorphosis
Murder on the Orient Express
My Twentieth Century
Night Mail
North by Northwest
Silver Streak
Sliding Doors
The Station Agent
Strangers on a Train
The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three
Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train
While You Were Sleeping

My own embarrassing short film from college was titled “Plague Train” and was, if nothing else, a good excuse to hang out around the tracks (did I mention I also love hobos?). If I ever magically get the opportunity to create a big-budget horror film I would give it the treatment I envisioned. The picture would be the surreal, supernatural story of a train travelling inexplicably into an unexplored jungle (the rails have been laid by some unknown force) while beset by giant obsidian millipedes and a mysterious mutagenic plague. To be shot in B/W. Probably not a blockbuster…

Coming soon: The Great Train Wreck Quizery!