Obscure films

By Sean Carroll | November 25, 2005 12:40 pm

Since we’re doing holiday frivolities here, let me point to a post by Tony Galluci at milkriverblog, who is collecting nominations for the best film that too few people know about. I’m not very good at these games, since I only catch on to quality small films once twenty other people recommend them to me, at which point I can’t really claim that too few people know about them.

So, at the risk of being insufficiently obscure, I’ll nominate Vanya on 42nd Street as a dramatically under-appreciated film. In this movie we have:

  1. A play by Anton Chekhov,
  2. adapted by David Mamet,
  3. directed (in rehearsal) by Andre Gregory,
  4. filmed by Louis Malle,
  5. performed by an amazing cast featuring Julianne Moore, Wallace Shawn, Larry Pine, and several other New York theater regulars.

Happily, these raw materials come together into an amazing whole. We start with a play that has the typical Chekhovian layerings of meaning and mood, and embed it in a film that follows seamlessly from the actors arriving at the theater into beginning their rehearsal (one of the jolts of the movie is when you realize the play has already begun and you hadn’t noticed). We alternate between being drawn in completely to Chekhov’s dialogue and being pushed out by reminders that these are actors performing a play; the juggling act could have fallen flat, but all the different balls are kept artfully in air. It’s not such an obscure film, but I can still push it as under-appreciated.

Forced to slightly greater obscurity, I’ll vote for Gazon Maudit (French Twist). A completely hilarious film that starts as your typical frustrated-housewife-falls-for-lesbian-truck-driver picture, and then takes, unsurprisingly, a twist. Americans could never have made this movie — certain things the French will always do better.

Nominations? I’m sure people can out-obscure me without much trouble.

  • Ijon Tichy

    Restricting myself to an American director, I urge you to try the films of John Cassavetes. “Shadows”, “Faces”, “A Woman Under the Influence”, “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie”, “Love Streams” … these are great and underappreciated films that will challenge you and push you outside your comfort zone.

  • Moshe

    I only watch obscure movies, as they tend to be less predictable, and I liked both movies mentioned in the post … though I have watched better movies, I’ll nominate “Slacker” as a tribute to the good times in Austin Texas.

  • spyder

    BLISS the 1985 Australian film, not the ’97 hollywood sex romp. Funny, well-written tribute to honey bees, and so much more.

    Also the 1968 Jean Luc Godard films within a film SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL is about as obscure a music video there is, and yet is captivating and informative, not just about the actual construction of a classic piece of rock-n-roll music, but also of the nightmare that was at the edges of social conflict in the US.

  • Ijon Tichy

    Denmark has not only given us one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century; it has also blessed us with one of the greatest film directors: Carl Theodor Dreyer. His early silent films culminated in the masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Later, he produced some sophisticated psychological dramas, including Ordet (1955) and Gertrud (1964).

    To round things off I’ll finish by listing 10 films (by 5 different directors) you’re unlikely to have seen, even if you regularly visit the independent cinema in the “alternative lifestyle” district of your favourite city:

    Woman in the Dunes (1964) and Antonio Gaudi (1984) directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara.

    Tokyo Story (1953) and Floating Weeds (1959) directed by Yasujiro Ozu.

    Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) and The Color of Pomegranates (1968) directed by Sergei Paradjanov.

    The Street of Crocodiles (1986) and Institute Benjamenta (1994) directed by Stephen and Timothy Quay.

    And here’s a couple for the kids … I mean young adults … Funny Ha Ha (2003) and Mutual Appreciation (2005) directed by Andrew Bujalski.

  • Mike Molloy

    Don’t Look Now, a 1973 movie by Nicolas Roeg. It’s a horror movie set in Venice in the winter that genuinely conjures up horror, rather than just having lots of slashing and gore. Very atmospheric and creepy, and beautifully photographed, too.

  • serial catowner

    The first time I watched Don’t Look Now, I was on the graveyard shift and we had a very low census, and, of course, it was the middle of the winter in Seattle, foggy cold and dark. Watching this film in the middle of the night with most of your lights turned off will definitely enhance your viewing experience.

    I find Liquid Sky to be screamingly funny. Sometimes I like the techno-scored accompaniment, sometimes not so much. A good one to watch at home, so you can choose how much sound you want.

  • http://www.esztersblog.com eszter

    Gazon Maudit is great choice! And you’re right, it’s highly unlikely that such a movie could be made here in the US. I saw it when it first came out (I happened to be living in Switzerland at the time) and then a few years later bought a copy on eBay.

  • Greg A.

    How about La Ardilla Roja [The Red Squirrel]? It’s by Julio Medem, of Sex and Lucia fame. It’s kinda creepy, but it’s also heartwarming and shocking.

  • Robin

    How about Sans Soliel, Chris Marker’s not quite documentary but video essay on memory, art, politics, and the problem of making sense of the world. Poetic, and it stays with you for years.

  • http://afineline.org Shadan07

    Greaser’s Palace is one of my favorites, being a musical about the second-coming set in the old west…shot in ’72 for a budget of about $10k, most of which was spent on LSD…

    And for the foreign-film crowd, Fitzcarraldro is one of Werner Herzog’s best obscure movies… though Diva is my fav….

  • http://www.amara.com Amara

    What.. no Kieslowski? Perhaps he is not obscure enough…

    Here I describe my all-time favorite: the movie _Blue_ (and the corresponding music by Zbigniew Preisner). (1993)

    This movie begins with a tragedy, and, on the surface, it is about a woman, Julie (played by Juliette Binoche), learning to accept and grow out of the largest losses that one can possibly have. When she loses her husband and daughter in a terrible car accident, for all of its tragedy and drama, this is a luxurious situation: she is completely free. Financially, she is provided for, and she has no responsibilities. But how far is she really free? What does ‘liberty’ mean? Can one truly live a different life? Can one erase the past? How far are we free from feelings? Is love a ‘prison’? Or is it freedom? In Blue, the main character faces a prison that she creates by both her emotions and memory, and works her way out of that prison with the help of music. She learns that she actually can’t free herself entirely from everything that’s been.

    Blue is also a movie about music. Musical notes often appear on the screen, about the writing of music, about working on music. When Julie tries to erase the past, the past comes back to her in the music. The musician who scored this movie wrote the music for many other Kieslowski’s films, and in some sense, Kieslowski’s films and Preisner’s music are inseparable. Kieslowski knew the ‘atmosphere’ that he wanted to create, and Preisner, as the movie was being filmed, created the music to bring out more of the atmosphere. One composer cited in the movie: “Van der Budenmajer” is a fictitious Dutch composer that is Zbigniew Preisner’s joke, because the music is really his. Preisner took all of his old works, cited a birth and death for Van der Budenmajer, and catalogued them with catalogue numbers used for recordings.

    All three of the Kieslowski trilogy: _Red_, _White_, _Blue_ (blue: liberty, white: equality, red: fraternity) are about people who have some sort of intuition or sensibility, who have “gut feelings. Maybe that’s why I like these films alot. Kieslowski was (he died in 1997) a master at portraying the ‘human condition’, in very subtle, and yet very moving ways.

  • Levi

    I agree with Sean about Vanya on 42nd Street, and with Ijon Tichy about the Cassevetes movies. I haven’t seen Gazon Maudit, but it sounds interesting. One problem with commenting on this kind of post is that I figure if I’ve seen the movie, it probably isn’t very obscure. I’m still going to mention several movies though:

    Matewan (directed by John Sayles). This is a movie about a mining strike in West Virginia in the 1930’s. But it doesn’t come off as a dry thesis about Labor history. In fact it plays like a spaghetti western, with Sayle’s favorite actor David Strathairn in the Clint Eastwood role. Sayles has made a lot of good movies.

    Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch). I always think of this one as the best punk rock movie, even though it doesn’t have any any punk rock in it (unless you count Screamin Jay Hawkins as punk). It’s the attitude. Mystery Train and Ghost Dog are really good, too.

    The Woman in the Window(Fritz Lang). Lang made a lot of nifty B movies after he came to America. This one has a twist at the end which ruins it for some people. You should just ignore the last 5 minutes of the movie.

    The Music of Chance(Philip Haas). A movie about a couple of guys who lose a poker game and who then find themselve in servitude to the winners. It’s from a novel by Paul Auster, and it’s the kind of parable that can seem pretentious unless you are in the right mood. It worked for me.

    Salesman(The Maysle Brothers). This is a documentary made in the 1960’s about some door-to-door bible salesmen. It will convince you that even if the physics thing doesn’t work out, it’s still definitely a better career choice than door-to-door bible selling.

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  • http://www.farrellmedia.com John Farrell

    Hey, can you nominate your own film?

  • 223

    Of the films mentioned above, I love Stranger Than Paradise and films by Ozu and Kieslowski. But there are many that I haven’t seen and I should try.

    My nominees are…

    The Spirit of the Beehive by Victor Erice
    This is a great film about a child’s imagination, a family, and Frankenstein’s monster set in Spain after the Spanish Civil War. You can see the best acting by a child of all time in this film.

    A Summer at Grandpa’s by Hou Hsiao-Hsien
    This is probably the first film by Hou Hsiao-Hsien I saw. It is just a simple story involving a boy and his little sister spending a Summer vacation, but it is wonderful. Hou Hsiao-Hsien also made other great and possibly better known films, but I nominate this one here.

    The Double Life of Veronique by Kieslowski
    I’m also not sure if Kieslowski is obscure enough, but this is a little more obscure than the Three Colors. This and Red are my favorite Kieslowski films.

    Chungking Express by Wong Kar-Wai
    A cool film with an original style from Hong Kong.

  • http://milkriver.blogspot.com tony g


    can you nominate your own film?

    well, i’d say yes with one proviso. the objective here is not to just name obscure&great films but to build recommendations for others to see. so i’d say if your film is available to the watching public, why not?


  • http://milkriver.blogspot.com tony g

    of course, silly me, i do some looking around and see your films are available. have at it . . .


  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    John, so long as your films are obscure. If Spielberg comes around here, we won’t listen to him.

  • http://www.farrellmedia.com John Farrell

    I appreciate it! :)

  • http://www.farrellmedia.com John Farrell

    And indeed–they are VERY obscure….

  • Ijon Tichy

    Yes, a film version of the medieval play, “Everyman”, in a modern setting. That is definitely obscure. Kudos to you, Mr Farrell!

  • http://www.farrellmedia.com John Farrell

    Actually, since Sean started in on this, with Brazil, which I loved, I would also like to put a word in for what I think is the masterpiece Gilliam pulled off right after Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. If ever there was a Hollywood film that was killed deliberately by vindictive studio heads even before it opened, this is it. It’s a little long in spots, but I have to say, overall it’s a gem that puts all of the other “imaginative” movies of the 1980s in the shadows.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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