A Celebration of the Outrageous, the Overlooked, and the Accidentally Uplifting

Scene from the movie Jancinto

The literal translation of the term film maudit is "cursed film." Well, back in 1949, the writer/director/god Jean Cocteau headed a jury that pulled together a showcase of cinematic offerings that'd been overlooked at the time or were deemed "shocking, outré, and bold." The result: the apparently legendary Festival du Film Maudit in Biarritz. Included were Kenneth Anger's zipper-exploding "Fireworks" (1947) and Jean Vigo's L'Atalante (1934).

Sixty years later, the Harvard Film Archive saluted the Festival with a program that presented among others John Waters' Pink Flamingos (1972), Robert Aldrich's The Killing of Sister George (1968), and Pasolini's Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975).

A highlight of my early reviewing life occurred when the latter Pasolini adaptation of the Marquis de Sade novel was screened at the New York Film Festival just before its American release. Sitting in the mezzanine, leaning over the railing, I was able to watch over two-thirds of the sold-out screening running out in heels during the infamous poop-dinner scene.

Pink Flamingos also included a poop-ingestion moment that immediately bestowed stardom on the actor Divine. Audiences at its midnight screenings, however, never ran out. They were too stoned.

Now carrying on this tribute to unappreciated, experimental, and sidelined films is the Third Annual Film Maudit 2.0. Presented by the L.A. Performance Space and Gallery Highways from January 12-23, daring cinephiles will now be able to envelope their minds in over 100 works from 23 countries both virtually and in person. Thanks to Festival Artistic Director Patrick Kennelly, you can expect both the new and a few classics from the vault such as Russ Meyer's singular paean to man-killers with massive bosoms, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Kill! (1965).

Once considered porn-ish, the flick has now gained quite a few feminist credentials. Just ask revered critic B. Ruby Rich who, after 50 years, has revised her initial stance. She now insists that Faster Pussycat is no longer "a prehistoric relic of a film, steeped in misogyny and outdated values."

John Waters adds that Faster Pussycat is "beyond a doubt, the best movie ever made. It is possibly better than any film that will be made in the future." And who can argue when the screenplay offers dialogue that includes: "Women! They let 'em vote, smoke and drive -- even put 'em in pants! And what happens? A Democrat for president!"?

Moving on to current fare, there’s Johannes Grenzfurthner’s deliriously witty, yet highly discomforting, Masking Threshold (2021), a feature that brought me immense joy when I finally realized it was not a documentary. The chance that I could have ever actually run into its deranged IT worker, P.T. Alcorn, on the street would have made me quite agoraphobic.

(The locale of Threshold, by the way, is Apopka, Florida. Population: 51,800 as of 2019.)

Mr. Alcorn, who we never get to see in totality, is a polymathic nerd of a man suffering from extreme tinnitus in his little, unkempt house. "Tinnitus," he explains, "is the hearing of the sound that has no external source." The resulting unending attack on his eardrums has upended his gay relationship, his ability to go to work, and his sanity. He is now searching for a cure employing various devices and creatures such as a Blackmagic camera, a polyester shirt, purchases from Best Buy, worms, ants, and lots of fungi. "I want a chance at a normal life," he insists. His mother suggests gingko might restore him to normality. Otherwise, her boyfriend, an Asian, alcoholic acupuncturist who works as a dishwasher at the Olive Garden, might be the answer.

The film is a detailed chronicle of Alcorn's increasingly mad experimentations, his phone calls and email, and his hatred of barking dogs. Then there's the added bonus of closeup shots of his clipping his toenails and removing his earwax with Q-tips. (You just might never want to look at a Q-tip again.)

There're also loads of quotable dialogue you'll surely want to share with your loved ones: "Many people die at 25 and aren't buried until they are 75"; "Tradition is just peer pressure from dead people"; and "If life gives you lemonade, inspect it closely. It might be piss."

With one of the best screenplays of recent years (preferable to Licorice Pizza's), with the superb cinematography of Florian Hofer, and the awe-inducing editing by both Grenzfurthner and Hofer, Masking Threshold is a wry, dissective look at modern society's derangement. It might get a little too Grand Guignol for some in its closing moments, but if you can embrace a character that's equal parts Woody Allen, Norman Bates, and the Cartoon Network's Dexter, has Festival Maudit got a film for you!

Jean-Christophe Meurisse's Bloody Oranges (2021) is probably the closest we'll get this year to a first-rate, off-the-wall French satire on the governing and the governed, one reminiscent of Luis Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). Brazen hypocrisy is seemingly king here among the ruling Gauls. The Finance Minster is squirreling away hundreds of thousands of Euros across the boarder while his sycophants are dreaming of ways to do away with the citizens' pensions and benefits. "What if we tax abortions?" one asks. 

Then there's the onion-burping female gynecologist whose advice to a 16-year-old virgin about men, first-time-sex, and aging vaginas might be too-in-your face. Oh, and let's not forget the elderly couple competing in a rock 'n' roll dance contest to pay off their debts; the lawyer who believes males are a superior breed and that truth should be overlooked by his guilty clients; the rather insane leftist who feeds his gigantic pig sausages; and the extremely abusive taxi driver who . . . . Well, some things should remain a surprise.

Giddily witty, shocking now and then, while consistently entertaining, Bloody Oranges exposes the inanities of both the privileged and underprivileged classes, sexism, and passion, while showcasing an amazing example of true love and a horrifying new use for microwave ovens. Meurisse claims this quick-paced offering, one you'll want to rewatch, was inspired by actual news stories. Now that is more than a bit discomforting.

For those of you with an extreme fondness for British bus drivers, amateur theater groups, and Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), your prayers are answered by the documentary Alien on Stage. The directors, two long time friends, Danielle Kummer and Lucy Harvey, accidentally came upon a "serious" dramatic production of the cult sci-fi film enacted by a company of mostly middle-aged bus drivers in Dorset. The group's goal: to raise money for charity, I believe, and have fun.

With wobbly sets, well-intentioned costumes, dedicated "would-be" actors, and some sincerely meant direction, the play attracted an audience of 20 and was considered an unassailable flop. A flop until it wasn't one. Or as someone notes, when "the right piece of art [is] met by the right audience, you get magic."

Brought to London, to the Leicester Square Theatre, the very same stage that regularly hosts the likes of Joan Collins, the one-night, under-rehearsed production was quickly sold out and greeted like it was the rebirth of The Rocky Horror Show. "Crikey!"

“We're bus drivers. We're allowed to cock things up. We always do," one star noted.

There were cheers, unrestrained laughter, lengthy applause, and, of course, a standing ovation. Just wait until you see the alien creature break out of the character Kane's stomach. Who needs millions of dollars of special effects? Or as one ticket buyer asserted: "I've been at the National and ENO and Convent Garden. I predominantly work in opera, but Alien, Live on Stage . . . was one of the greatest moments I think I've ever had in the theater." This doc captures that glee in spades.

Moving to another genre -- tongue-in-cheek horror -- writer/director Javi Camino's Jacinto is billed in its press notes as what occurs when "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre meets Forrest Gump." There's a good chance that the creator of that allusion never saw either film.

Jacinto (Pedro Brandariz), the anti-hero here, is sort of mentally disabled, even muter version of Nicolas Cage's character in last year's acclaimed Pig, except he can't cook. Living with his parents and his pet hog Martino in Mallou, a semi-impoverished village in the Galician mountains, Jacinto lumbers about, sometimes wearing huge paper-mâché masks and often being bullied about by local teens for online videos. When alone in his bedroom, he watches decades-old vampire flicks on VHS tapes supplied to him by his coke-sniffing, heavily indebted brother. To Jacinto, the bloodsucking ghouls on his TV screen are not figures of fantasy, but actual beings debauching the world. 

The Old-World priest with his fiery rants at the local church increases Jacinto's belief in this evil possibility every Sunday: "The Pope spoke about the Devil as I have spoken to you many times. He said the Devil isn't something vague. He is a person. The Devil might be your neighbor."

Oh, no! Two leather-clad females, members of a heavy metal group, have just moved next door to Jacinto's family, and they are pounding out the Devil's music while at times wearing facial makeup à la Kiss. Lucifer and his ilk have no doubt arrived causing Jacinto immediately to get out the garlic. And the spikes!

Will discordant electric guitar strumming barraging his eardrums and the possibility of Martino being turned into sausages further unhinge the already unhinged gent? Of course!

With a sense of the macabre not unlike that of the William Castle films of the late 1950s/early 1960s; a dash of class-struggle realities; some group folk singing around the dinner table; and superb cinematography, here's quite an enjoyable offering that was a Jury Award Winner at last year's Austin Film Festival.

Then there's Austrian director Norbert Pfaffenbichler's 2551.01, subtitled "The Child."

Consider the following raves from a handful of top critics: "One of cinema's most unsettling nightmares." "A singular work of the imagination, a harrowing, heartbreaking plunge into the darkest recesses of the soul." And "a film that [takes] elements that one might have encountered in other movies in the past -- black humor, gore, surrealism, erotic imagery, gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and oddball performances -- and presents them in such a unique and deeply personal manner that the end result [is] something that literally looks, sounds and feels like nothing that had ever come before it."

The above praise is all for David Lynch's 1977 debut feature Eraserhead, yet it all applies equally, and if not more, to 2551.01, a tale of an underground dystopia patrolled by a militaristic, white-clad police force. Said to be spiritually inspired by Charlie Chaplin's classic The Kid (1921), the story begins with a man (Erber Stefan) with the head of an ape saving a child (Ionescu David) with a sack over his. The lad, to the apeman's chagrin, won't leave his side.

This is a chronicle of the duo's survival in a world where maybe enduring another day is not always the best choice. What if life was a continued nightmare, one where there was no escape into a dreamworld? Hey! Is that a deranged recreation of Alice in Wonderland's dinner party? Is that moment a bow to the Kafkaesque. A paean to Hieronymus Bosch? That's what this fantasy invokes.

Every head here is grotesquely masked, yet oddly beautiful, too. Inarguably, if you were streaming 2551.01 and continually halting the film, you'd notice every image is worthy of being framed. Yes, this might just one of the most completely realized artistic visions that's reflective of what we're all living through. And Pfaffenbichler promises a sequel. That will be quite a double bill. 

(For Film Maudit 2.0's schedule: https://filmmaudit.eventive.org/schedule . Individual tickets are $5; live performances are $10; all-access pass is $65. The Festival web site: https://watch.filmmaudit.org/filmmaudit )

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