Although frequently credited to Napoleon Bonaparte, the exact origin of the saying “It is but one step from the sublime to the ridiculous” is unclear. It has appeared, or been paraphrased, in works by Thomas Paine, James Joyce, and Mark Twain. It’s meant as a warning against excessive artistic ambition or pomposity, pointing out the risk that such efforts can easily topple into self-parody. A pair of new films this week demonstrate that (a) it’s possible to walk the line between the two without tipping too far in either direction; and (b) it’s a two-way street.
Godfrey Reggio’s previous films, starting with the groundbreaking Koyaanisqatsi (you don’t work for years in an independent video store without learning how to spell that one from memory!) in 1982, have certainly aspired to the sublime, and frequently achieved it. Using time-lapse cinematography, juxtapositions of nature and civilization, and unnerving Philip Glass scores, Reggio cried out cinematically over and over about the perils of technology to an increasingly mechanistic planet.
Reggio, whose fascinating biography includes over a dozen years of silence and prayer as a young member of a Catholic brotherhood, is back with only his second film in twenty years, and his first to employ the hallucinatory effects made possible by digital moviemaking technology. If there’s a paradox between his methods and his morals, it’s definitely no bigger than the one that existed forty years ago.
What preoccupies Once Within a Time isn’t the cannibalization of our planet by the relentless onslaught of automobiles, factories, and mines, but the colonization of our minds by, among other things, that convenient (if appropriate) bogeyman: the smartphone. This isn’t communicated through images of the real world, but through a fable set in tableaux combining the hand-colored, silent-film aesthetic of Guy Maddin with a (sometimes literally) Boschian barrage of surreal imagery.
A group of children are playing on a playground. An apple falls from a nearby tree and transforms into a man in an apple costume, who offers Adam and Eve a bite. This triggers some sort of breach in their reality and they eventually find themselves in a place where some sort of opera maestro belts out nonsense arias and the roads are made from iPhones. (If the double-metaphor of the apple wasn’t clear before, it should be now.) And that’s just the first ten minutes—I haven’t even gotten to the surprise guest cameo appearance by none other than…Mike Tyson?!?!
Is our current age a sunset or a dawn?, Reggio asks at the film’s conclusion. The acknowledgment that the latter is a possibility hints at guarded optimism, but this visionary artist has been artistically doom scrolling since decades before it was literally possible. Now 83, his eagerness to explore the possibilities of new media may mean he sees a way for technology and humanity to co-exist. Or it may just be a new bullhorn he can use to shout into the void.
In either case, it’s always refreshing to see a wordless, nearly plotless experimental film get any sort of theatrical play. And, if this barrage of images, sounds, and ideas seems overwhelming, Once Within a Time has the good sense to keep itself to a tight 51 minutes, the last five of which are credits. It’s that restraint, more than anything else, which keeps Reggio’s humorless tone poem from teetering into ridiculousness.
(Opens on Friday, Oct. 20 at Cinema 21 and the Salem Cinema, and on Friday, Oct. 27 at the Eugene Art House.)
Can, then, the ridiculous also morph into something sublime? Clearly, the history of classic film comedies suggests it can. But describing the human condition through Chaplinesque antics is one thing: creating genuine art by pushing the boundaries of good taste until they break is quite another. John Waters at his best gets there. So do the most biting escapades of Sacha Baron Cohen’s various characters. Amazingly enough, the childishly titled Dicks: The Musical aspires to those heights, and through sheer chutzpah almost gets there.
Or perhaps it’s not so amazing, since this adaptation of stars Aaron Jackson and Josh Sharp’s off-Broadway musical Fucking Identical Twins was directed by Borat helmer Larry Charles, whose hand on the tiller surely guides this gleefully profane wannabe cult classic through filthy, frothing comedic waters. Jackson and Sharp play, you guessed it, identical twins who had been separated at birth but are reunited when they’re both hired as sales reps for the Zoomba Corporation.
One had been raised by their mother (Megan Mullally), the other by their father (Nathan Lane), and once they realize their relationship, they plot to get their parents back together so they can be a “real family.” That’s it. That’s the plot. The twists include the fact that Craig (Sharp) and Trevor (Jackson) are parodies of penis-measuring business bros who are flamboyantly played by gay actors—which the opening titles inform us, twice, is “very brave.” (Their opening duet is “I’ll Always Be on Top.”)
Another is that their father, Harris, is, as he sings in “Gay Old Life,” “queer as a three-dollar-bill, and just as thin.” That number also reveals the existence of the movie’s truly tasteless secret weapon: a pair of grotesque, hairless, subterranean creatures who only communicate through clicks and whistles and are known as The Sewer Boys, kept by Harris in a hidden cage for purposes best left unsung. These stop-motion animated monstrosities help promote Dicks! The Musical from the ranks of amusing gay spoofery to that of anarchic culture-bombing.
So do the appearances of Bowen Yang as a cartoonishly effete, hot pants-wearing God and Megan Thee Stallion as the twins’ ball-busting girl-boss. Her song “Out Alpha the Alpha” probably has the best chance of any on the soundtrack to become a misandrist anthem. Of course, Lane and Mullaly are old hands at this brand of hammy queer lampoon. And, while Sharp and Jackson play one-note dynamos emitting put-on-a-show energy, their chutzpah makes the whole thing possible.
(Opens on Friday, Oct. 20 at Cinema 21, Living Room Theaters, Regal Fox Tower, Metro Theater in Eugene, and other area theaters)
The Pigeon Tunnel: The combination is promising: master of the documentary profile Errol Morris, who specializes in getting his subjects to reveal things they’d rather not, takes on the late master of the spy novel David Cornwell (better known as John Le Carré). And yet the result is underwhelming, partially because Cornwell, knowing he was near the end of his life (he died in December 2020), doesn’t really try to evade Morris’s probings. The only thing he refuses to discuss, which Morris doesn’t push back on, is his sex life.
The movie’s informative about Cornwell’s career and especially his early life: abandoned by his mother and plagued by a con artist of a father, he rose from humble origins to become at least a simulacrum of a genteel British icon. Both interrogator and interrogatee are men supremely confident in their own intelligence and perception, choosing their words carefully and speaking in portentous tones. That, combined with Morris’s typical use of disjunctive editing, foreboding music, and dramatic re-creations, gives the whole enterprise a sense of excessive self-seriousness. Not enough to make it ridiculous, but enough to mark it as a minor work from Morris. (Available on Friday, Oct. 20 on Apple TV+)
My Love Affair with Marriage: Latvian animator Signe Baumane brings her latest semi-autobiographical feature to the state. It uses analog animation techniques and incisive musical numbers to relate the story of a woman from the age of 7 to 25, as she travels from the far east of the then-Soviet Union to its far west and beyond, all the while confronting societal expectations around female experiences of romance and sexuality. Plus, a title song sung by Portland’s own Storm Large! (Thursday, Oct. 19 at Cinema 21 and Friday, Oct. 20 at the Salem Cinema with the filmmaker in attendance, then through Thursday at the Salem Cinema)
Astoria International Film Festival: The 2023 edition unspools over three days at the Columbia Theater in Astoria. Highlights include screenings of Jafar Panahi’s No Bears and Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO, two of last year’s best films. (Friday through Sunday)
Eastern Oregon Film Festival: On the other side of the state, La Grande hosts its own 72-hour celebration of independent cinema. Your humble correspondent will be in attendance, so holler if you see me! (Thursday through Saturday)
Killers of the Flower Moon: Martin Scorsese’s epic adaptation of David Grann’s nonfiction bestseller about a spate of murders on the Osage Reservation in the 1920s. Sadly, not screened for Oregon critics. (wide)
Foe: Oscar nominees Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal star as a couple in the year 2065 faced with turmoil after he is chosen to travel to space and she is offered a robot companion while he’s away. From director Garth Davis (Lion). (Living Room Theaters, Century Eastport, Metro Cinemas in Eugene)
ALSO THIS WEEK
- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari  accompanied by a new live score from San Francisco band Sleepbomb (Clinton)
- The Descent  (5th Avenue, through Sunday)
- Edward Scissorhands  (Kiggins, through Monday)
- Friday the 13th  (Eugene Art House, through Thursday)
- Mad Monster Party?  is a vintage piece of Rankin-Bass stop-motion insanity featuring the voices of Boris Karloff and Phyllis Diller (Academy, through Thursday)
- Nosferatu the Vampyre  (Academy, through Thursday)
- X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes  (Hollywood)
- Back to the Future  (Eugene Art House, also Wednesday)
- The 15th annual GuignolFest showcases horrific short films made in a 72-hour window and with a running time of exactly six minutes and sixty-six seconds. (Creeeepy!) (Clinton)
- The King of Comedy  (Cinema 21, 11 a.m.)
- The Birds  (Eugene Art House, also Monday)
- Free Willy (Hollywood)
- Psycho  (Living Room Theaters)
- Society  (Clinton)
- Wayne’s World  (Hollywood)
- Demons , accompanied by a live score from Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin and followed by a full concert by the Italian horror-soundtrack legends. (Hollywood, also Wednesday, but both shows are long sold out)
- Horror Express  (Darkside Cinema in Corvallis)
- Fangs!  is an Egyptian quasi-remake of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Church of Film @ Clinton)
- Filmed by Bike: Greatest Hits celebrates founder Ayleen Crotty’s retirement from the festival by screening the best and bikiest. (Cinema 21)
- The Haunting  (Hollywood, on 35mm)
- The X-Files at 30 celebrates Mulder, Scully and the rest of the gang with a landmark two-part episode  (Hollywood)