All too often, contemporary American movies tease us with plot “twists” that offer little more than narrative gimmicks to momentarily distract us from the pedestrian nature of the business. Filmmaking is now, sadly, all about the bottom-line, dollars-and-cents of creating a product, marketing the hell out of it and reaping the expected box office receipts. What else is there?
Well, lots, for the truly attentive film lovers or those willing to seek out the adventurous dark alleyways, the really crooked, dusty trails that require an experienced guide in order to gain a solid foothold. Pumpkin Productions, the moniker chosen by CityBeat contributing arts editor Steven Rosen, has teamed up with co-sponsor Cincinnati Film Society to present a three-day Mindbenders series, which will screen at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. The series will feature an eclectic trio of surreal films that will tease and entice converts away from the run of the multiplex fare toward the dark side of the cinematic force (which maybe has always been the way to go).
Mindbenders kicks off with Blancanieves, a Spanish language fantasy that dares to reimagine Snow White (Maribel Verdú) as the daughter of a famous bullfighter in Seville (circa 1920s) who enters the ring years later with assistance from a roving band of dwarves who entertain audiences with their own carnivalesque play on bullfighting. Writer-director Pablo Berger faithfully captures the spirit of the classic fairy tale and foregoes the happily-ever-after ending for a healthy dose of old-world darkness and grit that surprisingly feels quite modern and independent.
Berberian Sound Studio stars Toby Jones as an English sound editor brought in to work on an Italian horror film with a temperamental crew that thwarts the mixer’s every effort to comfortably fit into the mix.
That we never get to see clips from the film (which involves horses and witch trials) becomes secondary to the behind-the-scenes sound design work that involves the creative destruction of pulpy fruits and vegetables. While there are elements of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and Brian De Palma’s Blowout dancing around the fringes, Berberian Sound Studio is 1970s psychological horror through and through, fully immersed in European sensibilities.
Last but definitely not least is Ornette: Made in America, an older documentary (from 1985) that purposefully inserts fictional filmmaking and narrative tropes into its exploration of avant-garde Jazzman Ornette Coleman. Bouncing back and forth through his life and times, the film seeks to not only define his art, but also a certain cultural and historic framework by which to judge his music. Coleman is a fascinating figure in modern Jazz, a thoroughly adventurous improviser and composer working far outside the standards and norms of the genre. Yet, he is capable of laying down the most straightforward and engaging classics. He goes his own way and the film does the same, inserting recreations of his younger days (Demon Marshall and Eugene Tatum) and then bringing him face-to-face with the actors playing those younger versions of Coleman. Director Shirley Clarke weaves in other figures — writer William S. Burroughs and Jazzmen like Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Coleman’s son and drummer Denardo — to provide texture and context within the fractured retelling of his wonderfully episodic life.
Each of these films exists in a cinematic niche where film narratives can indulge in dream-like explorations rooted in a more ephemeral language and logic, where audiences won’t question the twisted landscapes, preferring to submerge themselves whole without fear of drowning in lyric currents. Mindbenders offers a late-life lesson on swimming in dark metaphoric waters, murky thanks to fairy tales and fantasy tropes that we’ve been conditioned to avoid and ignore during our passage into adulthood. But these filmmakers are among a precious vanguard ready to recondition our thinking.
Blancanieves will be shown at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Berberian Sound Studio at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Ornette: Made in America at 2 p.m. Sunday. These are all in the auditorium at Art Academy of Cincinnati, 1212 Jackson St., Over-the-Rhine. Each screening will be followed by a post-film discussion with guest speakers. Tickets are $8.75 in advance via mindbendersfilmseries.blogspot.com, which has a PayPal button. Tickets will also be available at the door for $10.
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