This week, Boing Boing is presenting a series of essays about movies that have had a profound effect on our invited essayists. See all the essays in the Mind Blowing Movies series here. — Mark
Pig (2010), by Rev. Ivan Stang
I don't take mind-blowing lightly, and there are several very different ways in which movies have blown my particular mind, such as it is.
Movies seen by a very young child and therefore making an inappropriately huge impression are one type of blowage. In that respect, more than 50 years later I still vividly remember seeing Mighty Joe Young (1949) on my grandfather's TV when I was about four years old, in 1957. Cowboys in Africa (?!?) capture a giant gorilla who ends up performing on stage — like Kong, but much more professionally. While, in front of an agog nightclub audience, his beautiful human keeper sings "Beautiful Dreamer" while Mighty Joe effortlessly holds her aloft, along with her grand piano and a solid platform. That sequence stuck with me, and to this day I often feel like a trained giant ape helping a pretty girl (or sometimes just an enlarged and life-imbued piece of clip art) make an impression on a bunch of drunks in a bar just to earn a few bananas. *
Probably the second monster movie I remember seeing was The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), fourth in the Universal classic series. It opens with torch-wielding redneck villagers harassing a poor handicapped man, Igor, who fends off their attacks by hurling huge chunks of the decaying Frankenstein castle wall down on them. He then finds his old friend the "monster" buried in a sulfur pit (having been pushed into it when it was still molten, in the previous movie). He frees the monster, and exploits its innocent mindlessness to get revenge on the Normals and Pinks who persecuted him.
I feel that my whole life has been a reliving of that sequence of events. Like Igor's borrowed monster, mine, named "Bob," is still pretending to do my bidding, but will no doubt turn on me in the end, as is the way of man-made monsters. The movie itself is one of the worst of the Universal monster classics, tainted by the meddling of studio execs, although the score is wonderful.
My father took me to see George Pal's The Time Machine in a theater in 1960, when I was about 7. By the age of ten I had read all of the best-known novels by H.G. Wells. What blew my mind was not so much the concept of time travel, which to me remains strictly a handy sci-fi conceit, but the stupefying relativity of time-spans within known history and presumed future history: from "normal," as we humans experience things, to mountains forming and eroding in seeming minutes. Even more striking was its stark depiction of a possible end result of class division, one that I see gradually coming more true decade-by-decade. At age 7 I vowed never to be one of the Eloi, the degenerate childlike future-humans farmed like cattle by the ugly and cannibalistic but vastly more organized Morlocks. I like to think of myself as a Morlock ahead of his time.
But then there are movies that blow one's mind *AS A FILMMAKER,* which is the career path I initially chose for my reanimating of monsters. As much as I hate to admit it, Frank Zappa's rather terrible movie 200 Motels (1971) had an enormous influence on me both stylistically and technically; it was the first feature film shot on video, and relentlessly over-used the atrocious, garish "psychedelic" video effects of the 1970s. I sat awash in it at "Midnight Movie" showings at least fifteen times when I was in college (briefly). When I watched it again a few years ago, I soberly pondered how very seriously drugs can affect a young person's judgment. Still, flawed as it is, it was extremely influential on possibly more levels than I am aware of.
In college I stumbled upon a little-known indie called The Projectionist (1971), made by Harry Hurwitz and starring the same Chuck McCann later seen in crappy kids' shows like Far Out Space Nuts. The fantasy scenes in this otherwise clumsy movie were my first exposure to the clever manipulation of "found footage," that is, juxtaposing and narrating recombined shots from unrelated old public-domain low-budget movie serials in such a way as to shape the borrowed old-timey footage into a completely different movie. (Not unlike Dr. Frankenstein assembling a "perfect new man" from selected pieces of the dead!) Craig Baldwin made a career out of doing this for a while, and the only feature-length SubGenius movie, ARISE! (1989 and ongoing), directed by me and Rev. Cordt Holland, is at least 50% collaged "found footage." Even earlier, Jay Ward of Bullwinkle fame also had a short-lived TV series called Fractured Flickers in which editors rebuilt new movies (and added new voices) to silent movie classics. Those were cute and as clever as other Jay Ward productions of the time. But a few sequences from The Projectionist remain some of the most inspiring examples I've seen.
Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963) and a pseudo-documentary he directed called "Fellini's Roma" (1972) freed my ass in such a way that my brain followed. I still watch "8 1/2" annually because (I like to think) it is uncannily close to my own experiences as an artist, a husband and a weirdo. Reassuring. However, Fellini's Roma was the first "fake documentary" I ever saw, a reality show way ahead of its time, and almost all of the few movies I myself have made and seen distributed widely fit that description. My underground film from 1973, Let's Visit the World of the Future, owes much to Roma, The Projectionist, and also Orson Welles' adaptation of Kafka's The Trial. Incidentally, Robert Anton Wilson told me that The Trial was his single favorite movie. I could justifiably include R. Crumb and The Firesign Theatre in this paragraph, but that's for a different article.
The Tree of Life (2011) blew my mind recently partly because it was just so damned GOOD, period, and because the protagonists — a slightly weird family in Texas in the late 1950s — look and talk almost exactly as my family did. The director, Terrence Malick, is a North Texan contemporary of mine, so this figures. Also it visually recreates everything from the Big Bang to the first eukaryotic life, to dinosaurs, to the heat death of the sun, utilizing special effects by Douglas Trumbull (of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame) and photography worthy of Koyaanisqatsi (1982) — another mind-blower, eyeball-peeler, or ass-freeer, come to think of it.
But my most mind-blowing in a PUZZLING way is an obscure 2010 movie called Pig that, as far as I know, is distributed ONLY via file-trading. It is very professionally made and acted to look like… well, "a documentary version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" might best describe it. A sadistic meth head and his developmentally disabled "wife" kidnap and torture strangers at random, in between cooking meals and polishing the glass eyeball of the main actor. Up until a twist ending which, believe it or not, justifies all the preceding repulsiveness, it would SEEM to be just an unusually crafted "slasher film," a genre I generally don't follow closely. Like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, it has that "home movie of real events" look. What blew my mind about it is that, unless I missed a swish-pan cheat or two, 70 minutes of this 90-minute film is honestly and truly comprised of ONE CONTINUOUS HAND-HELD SHOT. It's an obviously sweltering outdoor location, and whichever improv actors and hand-held camera operator did this *BLEW MY MIND* from consideration of the sheer physical exertion it must have required, and the concentration displayed in the acting. Did two camera operators swap off? Was there any actual script, or was it all improvised from a one-paragraph hand-written note? What makes Pig's production hard to believe is that the cinematography is excellent and the presumably improv actors never miss a beat. 70 minutes of handheld camera and unshakeable improv, plus presumably fake blood effects and a REAL glass eye removal!
My friend Dr. Legume found it online. I would never have bothered with a film of this description, but he sat me down in his house and started it up on his laptop at a random middle point, knowing that the one-shot improv approach would draw me in. Since then, out of dozens invited, I have only been able to convince two people (Dr. and Mrs. Philo Drummond) to watch the whole thing with me.
Making it even more "mind-blowing" is that the version I saw is basically creditless. The quick opening credits read, "METH-od Films" (sic) and the title, "Pig," over a background graphic that I'm guessing is the chemical formula for methamphetamine. And that's it. No end credits after the twist ending. I could find nothing about it on the web until today, when I found this article explaining its actual source, one Adam Mason.
In closing I must say that my mind has much more consistently been blown by novels, and history or science books, than it has been by movies or even pornography. The one movie that I think improves upon a novel is Christopher Nolan's The Prestige. (The novel's author is said to agree.) That and Nolan's Memento really took me by surprise. Shane Carruth's extremely low-budget time-travel movie Primer (2004), made in Dallas of all places, has such a mind-blowing screenplay that it deserves its own feature article. It has the deepest, richest, most baffling but internally consistent multiple-timeframe-realities screenplay of any movie OR book that I know of. Compared to that, Nolan's Inception is like a coloring-book. Its fans have excavated fully nineteen levels of alternate time-streams out of it. It does not so much blow the viewer's mind as permanently cripple it.
* This film was Ray Harryhausen's first feature-film job as a stop-motion animator, working under Willis O'Brien, and arguably Harryhausen's most subtle animation. When I was in my 30s I actually got in a verbal fight with Harryhausen at an sf con by trying a little too hard to get him to record a promo for my SubGenius radio show. In restrospect Ray's instincts were uncannily right.