Saturday, February 09, 2008

Dr. Caligari (1988) - Review

"My guess is Caligari is saying that life imitates bad art." - Adrian

Not to be confused with the legendary German expressionist film Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari from 1919, this feature is a 1988 experiment of epic proportions from director Stephen Sayadin (aka... Rinse Dream? That's right, Rinse Dream.), who is probably best known for having directed Cafe Flesh, a post-apocalyptic porn film which was given both an edited mainstream release, and a full-on hardcore video edition. It was also co-written by Jerry Stahl, a man who's written everything from episodes of Alf to the Michael Bay retarded action extravaganza Bad Boys II. Released on VHS in the late 80s and then more or less forgotten immediately thereafter, it's a shame... this may well be the most impressive use of sweet sexual nothings pounded into the back of my skull like cold soothing nails that I've seen my entire life.

Mrs. Van Houten (Laura Albert) has lost her mind, a nymphomaniac who's fallen out of touch with reality. Her husband, after losing all hope of controlling her raging libido, seeks the aide of the distinctly unconventional Dr. Caligari (Madeleine Reynal), a woman who's own practices of radical hormone therapy have left the other doctors in fear. The leading directer Dr. Lodger turns a blind eye to her madness for the continued grant support, but the rest of the staff eventually teach him the truth... though it may be far too late for everyone already locked inside the Caligari Institute.

Trying to describe, let alone explain this... thing, is virtually impossible. Playing like an off broadway show that happens to have been shot on film, with minimalistic sets full of overt sexual and classic horror film imagery, esoteric Dario Argento inspired lighting casting the players in a hellish void of candy colored nothing, and wardrobe best described as St. Post Apocalypse Hospital Chic, the entire film borders on the indescribable, or at least the totally illogical. While musicals have a certain disconnection from reality to begin with - after all, while I'm prone to burst out in song in public I can't find anyone else to join me in Monty Python's "Every Sperm is Sacred" - but despite being structured as a piece who's every word is a poem the general aesthetic and refusal of common narrative structure or even an attempt to grab at a certain frame of time or space. In practical terms Dr. Caligari is probably familiar territory for anyone who works in Avant-garde theater, and something of an unexpected synapse rape to pretty much anyone else.

The dialog - assuming I should really call it 'dialog' - is for most of the runtime nothing but free form beat poetry about cannibalism, sexual dissatisfaction, and when the film is trying to play it straight it's still got moments moments where after a shocking revelation the entire cast will quite literally turn the camera and say "wow" in unison. While there's an arcing plot in which Dr. Caligari's experiments in swapping human emotions through chemical transfer is, in actuality, a scheme that will inevitably benefit her own evil ends... it really doesn't matter. What we're seeing is raw art, festering and screaming in the purest sense of the word, a ceaselessly unique experiment in cinematic post modern insanity without even a prayer of marketing itself as satire, using the 1919 silent film as a springboard (or maybe an excuse) to revel in its' own excess. Focusing on any sort of strange vibe the film can find, every bit of it sexual: Injections are "swapping bodily fluids", old men talk provocatively about needing moisture to keep from getting a rash on their poonater, a woman turns her hand into a creepy veined phallus to loosen her overly moral's husband attitude manually (yes), and a cannibal who loves shock therapy keeps asking if Caligari will "still do him" each time they're done conversing. Even a baked good turns into a Lovecraftian tentacle monster! The film is literally a side-show of sexual deviation, but it's impossible to find comfort in anything any more mundane or less taboo: even meal time is spent shearing the leg of lamb before you eat it, and those who are too insecure in their own sexuality are shown as having no power or freedom, in one example embodied by a man lacking a month (something a pornographic television program had more than enough of earlier on).

Yet it's not as if perversion is the key to happiness: while desire is the only thing consistent and thus worth believing in, it brings none of the cast happiness. The prudes who wouldn't dream of giving into their desires spend the whole film trying to cure the ones they love of their manias, while those who are mad with lust exist only to fulfill their selfish desires at the cost of always wanting more and harming those around them in the name of selfish joy. The denizens of the Caligari Institute are prisoners, but of their own device more than of the invisible black walls that surround them. The Good Doctor - such as she is - spends the entire film building up to a plot where she'll remove her own consciousness and replace it with another, proving that even the perverted Goddess who pulls the strings of those around her can't be happy being herself. The film is quite depressing, really, no matter who you are or what gets you off. The repressed are miserable and the perverted are never satisfied, so what morality does all of this poetry lead to? I'd assume that balance, a zen infused middle ground is the way to be satisfied, but as not a single likable character is remotely near this frame of mind I'm left to assume that all of this sexual frustration really has no morality assigned to it, and that a well adjusted and not horrifically repressed or twisted individual simply doesn't exist inside of Dr. Caligari's world. Often art so focused on any inherently taboo sexual nature eventually reveal some moral core, either warning against excess or introducing the viewer to the concept that it isn't all so bad... well, here we're left with open dissections of obsession, but no prognosis thereof.

It's equal parts refreshing and frustrating to see that a film maker with balls big enough to try something truly unique and bizarre assumes anyone willing to watch what he has to say is smart enough to draw their own conclusions from the art rather than demanding it all be spelled out for them. Refreshing because I'm not assumed to be retarded, frustrating because without some moral barometer I'm left feeling that, fascinating or not, what I'm looking at is literally an intelligent series of erotica segments for the truly maladjusted. Not that I mind sick wank fodder for the sake of sick wank fodder in the slightest, but I can't help but feel that Dr. Caligari is trying to accomplish so much more than that. Without knowing more about Sayadin all I can do is write off the lack of a single character the viewer can view as a generally not-fucked-in-the-head individual as a minor flaw, at worst, and perhaps it was a daring and intentional exclusion at best meant to force the viewer to confront which of these maladjusted characters best reflects them. To be fair Dr. Lodger is a sweet old man on the surface, but the fact that he has an idea how insane Dr. Caligari is and chooses to stick his fingers in his ears in the hopes that the Institute will remain popular makes him, at best, a coward unable to cope with the painful reality around him. All the same, he's more entertaining and likable than his paranoid son and his bitch of a wife, who act as moral foils to Dr. Caligari's experiments at the cost of being totally unlovable and squirm-inducing little creeps. There's a world of difference between creep-s and creep-y, and particularly in the context of Dr. Caligari I'd take the latter every time.

Artistic minimalism was a technique used in Lars Von Trier's critically acclaimed 2003 film Dogville, a project I looked forward to for casting Hollywood actors in a 2 and a half hour marathon of humiliation, degradation, rape and - eventually - bloody revenge, extracted upon Nicole Kidman, shot entirely on hand-held digital video cameras, on a thread-bare set in which the period town was to be imagined by the audience to allow the viewer to focus solely on the character interactions rather than the time and place. Despite all the positive reviews and the unconventional daring on display... I hated Dogville. Hated it the way I hate going to the dentist or shutting an oak drawer on my nuts. The concept was golden, but it was spoiled between Kidman being a doormat for no good reason up until the last 15 minutes (and given the finale's revelation she should have had a lot more backbone than we see prior to that), and more importantly, the constant narration force feeding us "this is a bad start", "these people are ungrateful", "her life is a sad one". Hey Lars, if I'm smart enough to imagine a street and a barn with nothing but a tape outline on the floor to give me an idea where it is, I'm fucking smart enough to make up my own mind about what this town is doing wrong to this poor girl who only asked for a chance to live far away from the life she hated. But thanks for assuming I have no moral core anyway. (Dick.) To be constantly spoon fed the morality of the story was one of the most offensive and pointless things I can remember. As such I'd love to compare Dr. Caligari to this more modern and critically acclaimed film, but I think doing so would be nothing but a disservice to Dr. Caligari. Dogville - despite superficial similarities - is a really Dogshit. Dr. Caligari may not be perfect, but fuck, it's so much better than Trier's pretentious and boring "masterpiece" that it's enough to make me sob for the intellectuals and even the generally smart sods' who watch "smart" films and got duped into thinking that boring and offensive turd was worth anything.

I'd love to compare this to MIIKE Takashi's Juvenile A: Big Bang Love, but I actually haven't seen it yet. (Curses.) While Big Bang Love is sure to draw comparisons to Dogville, fuck it, Dr. Caligari is a much better comparison, and I can safely say that only having seen about 3 minutes of Miike's uncomfortably homosexual prison drama.

Watch Miike and not Von Trier, is the moral of this wholly gratuitous tangent.

So, worthless comparisons aside (try as I may), Dr. Caligari is so free form, so bold and strange, so unfocused on meeting any commercial ends as a genre film other than it being the genre film of 1988, that I have no clue what to group it with in terms of recommendations. Certainly the bizarre sexual tensions and post-modern homage seemingly make it an obvious 80s' counterpiece to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but even that picture is comparatively conventional. It's a top tapping musical, it has relatively normal (by which I mean not beatnikese) dialog to establish its' plot, and it has several varied and unique characters the audience could likely relate to or at least like without feeling that they're retarded or totally forked in the skull. In comparison there's virtually nothing to cling to in Dr. Caligari, unless you really get off on unique set design, beat poetry, or really, really dig weird shit. I'm talking The Holy Mountain, Eraserhead, A Snake Of June weird here. I can't say that the film is pretentious - doing so would imply that Sayadin was pulling these concepts out of his ass without any understanding or care of what they mean, and I refuse to believe that he didn't have something to say in all of this - but this is certainly the kind of film that could lead to such accusations. I'd say it's the equivalent of several Salvador Dali paintings made into a feature length film, but that isn't totally fair... Dali was weird, but his technical skills were second to none. The film on display is still rough around the edges, with some special effects looking almost charmingly low-fi and Halloween Party caliber, and several dialog sequences cutting in and out randomly as if clumsily cut by a censor (which for all I know could be true). I'm also disappointed that only two characters at the Institute were fully developed, when there's several - the Asiatic girl in the straight jacket pictured below, for instance - who could have made the film all the more complex and interesting. What issues the film has are less a matter of being "bad" rather than simply being missed opportunities, but somehow, someone thought that this would sell tickets, so that it didn't run 5 hours and feature any stop-motion animation featuring rabid penises is literally just an oversight to have convinced producers to let Sayadin shoot anything in the first place, I'm sure.

To be fair after bitching momentarily, the art design is spectacular in its' simplicity, and the material on display constantly challenging, but you never for a moment think this was shot for over a hundred dollars or feel that it's going to set a new standard by which any other crazy-ass cult film will follow. Sayadin is no Lynch, but that's not meant an insult: the film is spectacular as a unique and uncompromising work of sweat, blood, and tears. No level of technical prowess or budget can make up for raw and unfocused energy splashed on the screen like so many spilled brain chunks, and as being crap like I've never seen before, Dr. Caligari excels where so many supposedly mind-blowing films have fallen flat.

In short I feel kind of bad having so little to say about the film, but only because me trying to further dissect and explain sequences of a woman's hand burned by the crotch-straw of a scarecrow, or of a man discussing the taste of a pretty woman's flesh while wearing clothes versus being boiled in the nude, are slightly beyond my capacity. I don't know what Sayadin, or whomever gave financial birth to this film, was thinking but it was clearly something important to them. Dr. Caligari is a spectacular minimalist experiment in re-moulding what a theatrical film can be "about", which in and of itself surmises if you'll like it or not. If you like 'real' Hollywood fare and the thought of watching a crazy show about unreal human characters talking about their fetishes just doesn't do it for you, don't bother. Personally I liked it, but as I tend to like failed experiments it would come as no surprise to any of you that I'd have watched this thing even if it wasn't interesting or grotesque. That the film promised a hardcore mind fisting and delivered just leaves me tickled right down to my bleeding rectum.

Want a copy? Hit me up, my pretties, because this doesn't have a DVD release anywhere that I've been able to track down. I was given a DVD-R copy by a friend of mine who thought I'd get a kick out of it - and I did, I must say - which appears to be a copy of the Shapiro Glickenhaus Home Video release from '89. The quality is... well, look at the screencaps. About as good as a VHS-to-DVD-R will ever look, and honestly I'd be surprised if 4:3 wasn't the OAR, since everything appears to be in-frame at all times. There are theatrical posters out there, so either the 4:3 version just got lucky or it was matted to 1.85:1 on the big screen, which honestly would likely make a lot of the photography on display look pretty bad (or maybe the video transfer is just missing a bunch of info on all 4 sides). Ironically the poster, but not the video box, calls it "the cult film of the 80s", with the word 'lost' or 'forgotten' conveniently misplaced. I can only assume that Shapiro Films honestly thought they had the next Rocky Horror Show on their hands, and at best they had a fascinating piece of art that's virtually unmarketable outside of people who are simply prone to liking things they can't rightly explain.

A damned shame. It's a fun 78 minutes in that oh-so excessive 80s way, and should a restored DVD ever happen you bet your ass I'll pick up a copy.


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