The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser,
and a few more films

Elephant (1989)
Streaming free at YouTube

"For some of us, 'the troubles' is the elephant in our living room."

Welcome to Northern Ireland: Some guy walks into a rec center, spots a janitor cleaning up a shower, and shoots him dead. Then the killer leaves the building, crosses the street, enters a convenience store, and immediately kills the clerk. The film continues, and the guy continues killing people, seemingly at random.

Then it's someone else with a gun, killing more people at random.

Then it's a third guy, a fourth guy with a gun, killing people in their homes, their offices, on the sidewalk, at a gas station.

Then the movie is over, about half an hour and 18 corpses after it started.

#260  [archive]
MAR. 14, 2024

There's no dialogue, no explanation, no plot. What it means is for you to figure out.

Claude tells me this Elephant was partially the inspiration for the 2003 Elephant I reviewed a few days ago, and the resemblance is unmistakable.

The difference is me — I came into the more recent Elephant familiar with its subject matter, American school shootings. With this Elephant, I was mostly ignorant about 'the troubles' in Northern Ireland, so the moviemakers' lack of an opinion leaves me stumped.

All I know (correct me if I'm wrong) is that Ireland is its own country, but Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and some/many in Northern Ireland wanted to ditch the UK and reunify with Ireland.

There was terrorism and bloodshed for 30 years, but did one or both sides send gunmen to kill people at random, as shown here? Or is the gore allegorical? The movie shows none of the victims for long enough to know their politics, so to me, it's just a half-hour murder spree.

It's absolutely a success as a horror flick, though. It literally gave me a nightmare.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Elephant Man (1988)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

With only one feature film to his name (Eraserhead), David Lynch was hired by Mel Brooks, who handed him an all-star cast and a big-time budget to make this film. Of course, the combination of Brooks and Lynch sold me a ticket to see The Elephant Man when it came out, and it did not disappoint, either then or on a rewatch tonight.

At a circus freakshow, Dr Frederick Treves finds and is fascinated by John Merrick, a man painfully deformed and disabled. Treves, a teacher of medicine at the university, brings the man to class, lecturing about his physical maladies, and moves Merrick into a room of the hospital.

This is based on the true story of Merrick and Treves, as described in Treves' memoirs. What's more grotesque than Merrick, of course, is how everyone treats him — even Treves, at first, sees Merrick more as a lesson for his class than a man, so bringing him to the hospital is just a move to a higher class of freakshow. And then there's us in the audience, watching this film for a chance to gawk at the freak.

The Elephant Man is not quite Eraserhead, and some of the story makes no sense to me. I don't understand why, after Treves and Merrick become friends, Merrick doesn't tell Treves that gawkers are breaking into his hospital room to paw him and laugh at him.

That's petty nitpicking, though. The movie is a moving and effective think piece that'll get you thinking, plus it offers beautiful black-and-white cinematography by Freddie Francis.

Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, and John Gielgud star, with John Hurt wrapped in prosthetics as Merrick. Hurt, of course, went on to stardom on Doctor Who

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦   

The Emperor Jones (1933)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

Here's an almost-all-black cast, led by Paul Robeson, in a story based on a 1920 play by Eugene O'Neill. 

Brutus Jones (Robeson) is a Pullman porter who visits a gambling hall, gets into a fight, and kills a man. It looks like self-defense to me, but he's imprisoned. Then he escapes from a chain gang, takes work on a steam ship, and jumps overboard to swim to a tropical island. On the island, he enters into a business deal with an unscrupulous white trader, pretending to be his slave but soon maneuvering to become his partner. After that, Jones takes control of the business, then uses an unlikely ruse to make himself ruler of the island's black population — so he's Emperor Jones.

That's enough plot for three movies, and we're only about 1/3 of the way through. 

"For a little stealin', they puts you in jail; for big stealin', they makes you emperor." 

The Emperor Jones was progressive when it was written, but it's sometimes awkward a century later. The film opens with Africans in full traditional or stereotypical gear doing a native dance, then jump-cuts to blacks in an American church, arranged in a similar circle and singing a gospel hymn. And it closes — spoiler alert — with the Emperor slipping toward insanity, his comeuppance for being uppity and thinking himself so clever. In between, the script has Robeson speaking faux black syntax, and everyone uses more n-words than a Quentin Tarantino double feature. 

Other than that, though, this is powerful stuff, and it's remarkable toward the end. Robeson has a hell of a presence, and makes an almost thoroughly modern antihero.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Encounters at the End of the World (2007)
Streaming free at YouTube

Werner Herzog goes south until there's nowhere further south to go — Antarctica. He settles in for a few months at McMurdo Station, an American outpost run by the National Science Foundation, where a thousand or more people live.

I'm guessing this was intended as a nature film when the Discovery Channel commissioned it, but in Herzog's hands it becomes something different, and more personal. It's about the voluntary Antarcticans who've come there to stay, and they're an interesting bunch.

They tell their stories against a beautifully filmed backdrop in a frozen hell that would kill you in ten minutes if you aren't wearing the right gear. Mostly scientists, they share their passion for their particular field of study. When a few of them ramble too long, Herzog says so in his voiceover, and tells a shortened version of their story instead. That's editing, baby.

Wenders narrates, in English through a perfectly understandable German accent, and he's thoughtful, sometimes witty. Listening, it occurs to me how rare this is. A German accent has become cinematic shorthand for evil — it's always a Nazi or a criminal eager to chop you to pieces. Obviously a decent, kind man, hearing Wenders is almost a civil rights statement.

An ear-piercing choir occasionally sings oohs and aahs as musical accompaniment, like we're in church instead of the bottom of the world, and that's annoying, but there's only five or ten minutes of it. The rest of this is a beautiful study of humanity, and you'll wish we had more humans like Herzog and the people he's talking with.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)
a/k/a Every Man for Himself and God Against All
Streaming free at Internet Archive

Another from Werner Herzog, this time a drama instead of a documentary. It's based on the true story of Kaspar Hauser, a teenager found on the streets of Nuremberg in 1828, barely able to walk or speak. He was carrying only a Bible and a mysterious, unsigned letter, which explained that he'd spent his life until then imprisoned, shackled in a cellar, never allowed outside.

Some of the townsfolk take him in, and teach him to read and to write, which makes me think Kaspar must've been a genius — it's supposed to be very hard to learn to speak after childhood. Soon he's playing the piano, but seems happiest around horses and cows. He's unlikely to ever learn a trade, so eventually he takes work in a circus. 

"Mother, I am so far away from everything."

Rereading what I've written, Enigma sounds similar to Lynch's Elephant Man. Both are based on real people, but the key difference is that Lynch's film is unhappy, while Herzog's carries a whiff of optimism.

Kaspar is played by Bruno S (from Stroszek, a film I gotta see again), and there's a magic about Bruno. Like Kaspar, he was severely abused as a child, and Bruno was raised largely in mental institutions, until Herzog saw a documentary about him, and decided to make him an actor.

That's a strange story that deserves a movie of its own, but Herzog was right — Bruno is entrancing and charismatic on screen. There's simply no mistaking that he's having a good time playing Kaspar. You know something's wrong with the man, with both Bruno and Kaspar, but you also know something's right.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Enter the Ninja (1991)
Streaming free at Tubi

From the standard movie cookbook, here's an action flick made by a very familiar recipe, with cheap ingredients.

Let's see, the good ninja wears white, the bad ninja wears black. The gorgeous blonde is allergic to buttons on any of her blouses. Leading man Franco Nero is a walking smirk. Surprises add up to zero.

"You have won with honor. Allow me to die with honor."

This was filmed on the cheap in the Philippines, but the leading ninja, best buddy, best buddy's wife, and bad guy are all white. The fight scenes are thoroughly fake, with highly-edited quick cuts. The non-ninja bad guy triggers my gaydar, and it's not subtle, but nobody mentions it.

The movie delivers some unintentional laughs, if you fast-forward through the brief cockfighting scenes.

Verdict: MAYBE.


• • • Coming attractions • • •     

Equinox (1969)
E.T.: The Extraterrestrial
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Soul
An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn

... plus schlock, shorts, and surprises

There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

AlterCineverseCriterionCultCinema ClassicsDocsVilleDustFandorFilms for ActionHooplaIHaveNoTVIndieFlixInternet ArchiveKanopyKinoCultKino LorberKorean Classic FilmChristopher R MihmMosfilmMubiNational Film Board of CanadaNew Yorker Screening RoomDamon PackardMark PirroPizzaFlixPopcornFlixPublic Domain MoviesRareFilmmScarecrow VideoShudderThoughtMaybeTimeless Classic MoviesVoleFlixWatchDocumentaries • or your local library

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —

Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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  1. The Voyager spacecraft are still fighting for their lives and somehow staying awake. This is terrific news and caused johnthebasket to send my first comment ever to a CNN story. Sail on, Voyagers.


    1. I didn't know CNN took comments. Also don't know what's in the news about Voyager. Looks like it's borderline back in touch again, which is excellent. 50-year-old technology rules!

    2. Sixty year old technology without a disk drive. Everything's in memory. That's not a crazy idea now, but in the 70s, memory was so expensive and took so much real estate that IT engineers had to resort to swapping, which isn't as sexual as it sounds. So the operating system would send some of the contents of main memory to a disk drive and read another area of the disk drive into the vacated memory. This swapping created a relatively large VIRTUAL memory out of a small actual memory. I have stories about working on systems with a ROM disk drive, where I needed to justify to myself every byte of memory I used. Then an interrupt would come along and all my code and data would get swapped to a read/write disk drive and a read-only disk drive would swap in the needed code. It was an adventure in parsimony. I had an 8K program -- EIGHT K -- that managed all 14 of Tacoma's sanitary sewer lift pump stations making Tacoma one of the first cities on salt water to pre-process 100% of its sewage. I didn't write the code: IBM did, but I got to maintain it. Every time they added a lift pump station, I'd need to figure out how the hell to do something with a dozen bytes less than IBM had used. It was like solving an impossibly ancient riddle. And they paid me for doing it. Not much, but they paid me.


    3. Is Voyager running on similar memory swap technology, same as the Tacoma Sewer Dept? Certainly I trust TSD never upgraded — if the system works, why waste money on an upgrade?

      What I remember from that early era is how unreliable things were. Unexplained crashes, read-write errors on the floppies, usually just at the moment vital reports were needed. I left one job that had state-of-the-art tech and equipment (hub-cap size disk drives) and moved to a small shop just thinking of going computerized, and tried my best to talk them out of it. The cost was too much for what little advantage they'd get from it. One of my proudest accomplishments, they stayed computer free for almost two more years, and I think it helped them to wait.

  2. Well, I would say it's running on similar architectures, although the technologies are quite different. They have the same essential requirement: keep running whether there's a human there to help restart you or not. Under the Clean Water Act of 1972, the system that monitored and managed the processing of sanitary sewer material HAD to run 7X24 to prevent discharge of pollutants into Puget Sound. I would say the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act of that time were steps toward preserving an Earth worth sending messages back to for decades if not centuries. I'll let someone else assess whether they achieved and continue to achieve that objective.


    1. Gotta be a better world now than it would've been without the clean water and air legislation all those decades ago. Probably bought a longer life for you and me and millions. We're way past that point now, of course.

      That makes sense. Sewer and outer space, you want the software to reboot itself when it crashes, not just sit there waiting for someone to push a button.

      How's your cognitive function, btw? Still recovering post COVID?

    2. I think it's continuing to recover, but it's beginning to blend into my hearing loss and the general cognitive deficit that accompanies being 74. My sister says I'm still crazy after all these years. She refuses to pretend she's not.


    3. Sounds like only a hint of a problem, so I'll dial back my worries. My facilities are diminishing too, but long as it's a slow process I will take what comes.


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