Most of the time filmmakers tell us stories. But sometimes they just open up their heads and let us crawl inside. These movies may have distinct characters and a semblance of narrative, but things like motivation and resolution take a back seat as we’re given a guided tour of dreamspace. And sometimes that dream is a nightmare. A pair of films currently showing in Portland that in some ways couldn’t be more different share this quality of being a portal into unfettered imagination.
First, the nightmare. David Cronenberg has been crafting them for decades, and Crimes of the Future is being billed as his return to the “body horror” that made his name through such films as The Brood, Videodrome, The Fly, and others. It’s basically Cronenberg’s latest, perhaps most despairing, answer to a question he’s been asking his entire career: What would humanity be like in a world where people were immune to physical pain and infection, making flesh truly malleable?
The answer, in short, is provided by Caprice (Lea Seydoux), one half of a grand guignol performance art duo: “Surgery is the new sex.” In Cronenberg’s imagined dystopia, she and her partner Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) stage public events where she slices him open and removes one of the unusual new internal organs he has developed the ability to grow. It’s unclear what caused the hastening of the evolutionary process that has resulted in this ability, but it’s widespread enough that a National Organ Registry has been established. Other bizarre mutations have arisen, including that of a young boy who obsessively eats plastic and is, in the film’s opening scene, suffocated to death by his mother.
By now you probably know whether Crimes of the Future might be for you. This is dark, unrelenting stuff, and there isn’t a protagonist to root for, unless you count Saul, who’s about as appealing as Kafka’s Hunger Artist. The pair of organ registry employees played by Don McKellar and Kristin Stewart (the only performer who doesn’t seem quite at home in Cronenbergland) provide a few moments of dark levity, and a pair of female assassins armed with power drills provide a dose of unresolved confusion.
Mostly, though, this show belongs to Mortensen, Stewart, and the design team led by Carol Spier (who has worked with Cronenberg as far back as 1983’s The Dead Zone). The latter is responsible for the deliciously creepy suspended chair that Saul sleeps in, as well as the various devices, implements, and receptacles involved in his and Caprice’s visceral spectacles.
Despite all the human organs on display, the world of Crimes of the Future isn’t all that fleshed-out. It’s a very grimy place, whether due to whatever catastrophe predated the action or because humans immune to infection realized there’s not much reason to clean things anymore. Everything takes place in an unnamed city whose residents possess a variety of accents and ethnicities.
What plot there is concerns the father (Scott Speedman) of that murdered boy, who’s searching for answers that lead him into Saul and Caprice’s orbit. There’s also a revelation about Saul’s true motivations that I guess I shouldn’t reveal, although it doesn’t really end up having much impact. The whole thing climaxes in a truly edge-pushing scene that should give even some hardcore horror fans serious pause.
In the same way that so many David Lynch films provide unmediated access to his particular fetishes and foibles, Crimes of the Future does for Cronenberg, who at 78 shows no signs whatsoever of mellowing out. (Playing at multiple area theaters.)
A DOOR TO A DIFFERENT SORT OF REALITY is opened in Neptune Frost, an almost indescribable combination of Afrofuturism, anarchism, androgyny, and artistry. It’s part of an ongoing project by the American poet, musician, and actor Saul Williams that he calls MartyrLoserKing, and IS set in an isolated camp built from e-waste in the hills of Burundi, where a collective of rebel hackers has gathered.
Many of them, including Matalusa (Kaya Free) are workers who have escaped from the brutal coltan mines. (Coltan is a mineral necessary for the production of mobile phones and computers, about half of which comes from Rwanda.) After arriving, Matalusa meets Neptune (played alternately by Elvis Ngabo and Cheryl Ishega), an intersex sex worker who has fled from the city. Their union somehow produces a force that may help the group disrupt the techno dystopia that has kept them oppressed and exploited.
“You may be asking yourself, WTF is this?,” as one character says in voiceover about a half-hour into Neptune Frost. But, as with Cronenberg’s film, you’d be advised to let it wash over you, especially since, compared to Crime of the Future, you’ll get a lot less intenstine on you if you do so. For Neptune Frost is a riot of color, music, and visual effects. Wonderfully elaborate and unique hair and costume arrangements pair with a series of compelling songs, some of which have appeared on previous albums by Williams.
The dialogue bears evidence of a poet’s ear, despite being translated from multiple African languages into English subtitles. “MartyrLoserKing” is obviously a riff on Martin Luther King, but it also leads to the possibility of a Matalusa Kingdom. The collective members use as a common greeting the phrase “unanimous goldmine,” which nicely evokes the communitarian, anarchist politics they pursue.
Neptune Frost is a great example of form following function. To espouse a critique of the hyperrational, binary, capitalistic machine that has disempowered Africans and stolen their resources, Williams (and Rwandan co-director Anisia Uzeyman) don’t use the tropes of straightforward storytelling. Instead, they use the language of dreams, showing us the future they want instead of just telling us about it. (Opens on Friday, June 10, at the Regal Fox Tower.)
THIS IS ALSO AN ESPECIALLY RICH WEEK for revivals and repertory titles. It’s the 30th anniversary of the best damn movie about the All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League ever made. That’s right, if you remember when A League of Their Own came out, you’re officially old. Madonna, Geena Davis (I miss her!), Lori Petty (I miss her too!), Rosie O’Donnell, Tom Hanks—all directed by Penny Marshall (I really miss her!). There may be no crying in baseball, but you’ll be sobbing like a colicky infant if you miss the chance to catch this crowd-pleaser on the big screen for one week only at Cinema 21!
Just make sure you leave time to catch Dazed & Confused on Monday the 13th at the Hollywood Theatre, or the Michelle Yeoh mini-fest featuring 1993’s The Heroic Trio and The Executioners at the Whitsell Auditorium, or the A24 showcase unspooling all week at Cinemagic. And never let anyone tell you there’s nothing worth seeing out there …