The cinema of the weird is a special and elusive genre. It can seem daunting to outsiders, not least because its definitions are so liquid. But to its fans, there’s nothing better than finding a truly bizarre piece of film to cherish and share. In short, weird cinema is characterized by gleeful surrealism, bizarre characterizations, and the unexpected. In The Weirdo Cinema Chronicles, I hope to expose these little-loved gems to wider audiences and foster growth in the cult of strange movies.
“You don’t want to be trapped inside with me, sunshine. Inside, I’m somebody nobody wants to fuck with, do you understand? I am Charlie Bronson. I am Britain’s most violent prisoner.”
I haven’t seen Nicolas Winding Refn‘s Drive, although by many accounts it’s bad-ass. Winding Refn himself provided the film’s best possible endorsement when he name-dropped Halloween, The Transporter, Taxi Driver, and the films of Alejandro Jodorowski when called upon to list Drive‘s influences. Although, I’ll admit that when I read that particular bit of directorial pretense, my fanboy brain went positively apoplectic. I am a fan of those films, and an avowed supplicate at the throne of Jodorowsky. How could a film possibly combine elements of such disparate films without being a schizoid fiasco? I unfairly lumped Winding Refn in with other shallow provocateurs like Tom Six (of Human Centipede infamy). He was either full of crap, or his films were a messy patchwork of his teenage cinematic obsessions.
Then I saw Bronson.
Bronson tells the (sort of) true story of Michael Gordon Peterson (who took the name of Death Wish star Charles Bronson), criminal, bare-knuckle boxer, and “Britain’s Most Violent Prisoner.” The film meanders through Bronson’s life with no particular sense of narrative urgency. One minute, a teenage Peterson is beating hell out of his classmates, then he’s robbing a post office with a sawed-off shotgun. One minute, a nude, blood-soaked, and newly-christened Charlie Bronson is brawling with prison guards in a comically undersized cell, and then he’s standing on stage in front of a captive audience, wearing a three-piece suit and black-and-white clown-paint. There’s a schizophrenic animated sequence, a long and depressing episode in a mental hospital, a Rocky-style victory montage, and several scenes of silent, awkward couch-sitting in which Charlie’s inability to relate to other human beings is shown in bright contrast to the socially graceful freaks into whose circle he has fallen. None of this random, no-particular-place-to-go narrative structure is accidental. Winding Refn crafts the film to reflect Peterson’s own fame-hungry, child-like mindset, depicting the most despicable acts of violence and theft with sleepy-eyed romanticism. Bronson is willfully ignorant of the gravitas of his actions. For him, the brawls and the assaults and the resulting newspaper headlines are the stuff of comic book heroism, and the film’s structure therefore demands to be more like an aimless barroom bragging session than a fair and balanced biography.
Much of the criticism leveled at the film centers around a perceived glorification of violence. These charges aren’t entirely unfair. There is something worshipful and awed about the way Winding Refn depicts Charlie’s nastiness. But it is exactly that glorification that makes the film so special. Whereas lesser films (I’m thinking specifically of Michael Haneke’s exercise in nigh-unwatchable brutality, Funny Games) aggressively and accusingly confront the audience with their own love affair with viciousness and viscera, Bronson invites the audience to revel in the chaos without sacrificing the film’s central issues of media violence-obsession and stardom for stardom’s sake.
The film’s final sequence sees Bronson kidnap his pretentious prison art-instructor, tie him to a column, and paint his face to look like Bronson’s own, completing the piece with a pair of circular sunglasses, a porkpie hat, and a flat black representation of Bronson’s own signature mustache. The scene boasts a thick, nasty atmosphere of tension, but also a sensual Fellini-esque surreality that borders on the homoerotic. In the end, everyone who comes into contact with Charlie come to love Charlie, and eventually come to be Charlie.
And that’s really Winding Refn’s brilliance as a filmmaker. He’s not an arthouse director with a condescending interest in genre film. He’s a perfect hybrid, with one foot firmly planted in the dignified Cannes and Sundance communities and the other gleefully and lovingly shuffling through the dirt of surreal exploitation cinema. Unlike any other hybrid filmmaker, Winding Refn’s films manage to function simultaneously as high art and low brow.
So what are your favorite weird movies? Let me know in the comments below. I’ll give them a look and determine (arbitrarily and without any peer review) whether or not they belong in the Weirdo Cinema Hall of Fame.