This Spring at Doc – WTF?: The God-damnedest Things Ever Seen

The Doc Films spring calendar begins tonight. On Sundays there'll be post-war films by Yasujiro Ozu; Mondays features Taiwanese cinema; Tuesday is devoted to the early days of documentary films; Wednesdays are Cary Grant films; Thursdays at 7:00 feature American post-hippie urban angst from 1968-1973; and finally...

Late Thursday nights, usually at 9:00 p.m., is the series I programmed: WTF?: The God-damnedest things ever seen.

Here's the essay I wrote for the newsletter explaining the rationale:

Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland

When Bill & Coo, a feature film with a cast made up entirely of actual birds in costumes, was released in 1948, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Agee was assigned to write a review. Flabbergasted by what he had seen, Agee declared the movie "by conservative estimate, the God-damnedest thing ever seen." This series presents that film, as well as nine other contenders for that title.

Although I initially assumed that the meaning of "God-damnedest" was self-evident, from the blank expressions I received when pitching this series, I soon realized it would require some further explanation. I do this under a certain amount of protest: I believe the descriptor is as impossible to explain as the films it describes. These movies are movies so utterly bizarre that one cannot believe they are real. You see, part of what makes film so unique as an artistic medium is that, for the most part, it can only be created by a team of people. Writers, directors, actors, editors, right on down to caterers and drivers are involved in any given production, not to mention the producers and financial backers. It's impossible to imagine, then, that such a large group of people could collectively agree to devote days and weeks to create a western with only dwarf actors, as in The Terror of Tiny Town, or a serious film depicting a Communist decapitating a small child for refusing to stomp a picture of Jesus Christ, as in If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? But somehow, they happened. These are unaccountable films. These are films that should not exist. Yet, fortunately for us, they do.

The immediate conclusion a viewer may draw after seeing these movies is that they are not manmade at all, but are some sort of alien artifact - a parody of cinema made by some distant race with only vague familiarity with human and filmic conventions. Even if we are to assume that they do originate on Earth, one thing must be made clear about these films: they were not selected because they are "so bad they're good." Yes, Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s Glen or Glenda? does not conform to any standard conception of how movies work. Yet what the viewer ought to walk away thinking about is not its incompetence, but its inexplicability. Wood did not intend to create a camp classic about transvestitism. He believed he was making an earnest explanation of a practice that to this day remains completely misunderstood. Yet how could he and his crew not realize how utterly strange an explanation it was?

Some of the films are quite expertly crafted, completely defying any sort of "so bad it's good" definition. David Lynch's Eraserhead is a revered classic, a surrealist masterpiece filmed over a period of five years as a student film project. Unlike in much of Lynch's later work, there is nothing one can call tongue-in-cheek here. Thirty years later, no one quite knows how its terrifying visual effects were created, lending credence to the theory that the movie was, in fact, produced extraterrestially. Likewise, This Day and Age was made by an accomplished and esteemed director - Cecil B. DeMille. Yet its shockingly uncritical look at unspeakable mob violence - by upstanding teenage boys, no less - makes it hard to believe a major studio could have possibly agreed to make it.

Often the obscurity of these films lends them a great deal of otherworldliness. Reviewing impossible to find movies like the 1930s self-flagellating religious cult thriller The Lash of the Penitentes or the disturbing all-star production of Alice in Wonderland makes us at Doc feel like we've just dug up some horrifying item that throws into chaos everything we know about how the universe functions. That isn't to say there is not a certain amount of joy that comes with our discoveries. We have long talked about starting up a boutique DVD label under the Doc Films name with the sole purpose of releasing Corn's-a-Poppin' for a larger audience. The fact that its filmmakers and performers are so seemingly anonymous and lost to time is almost as jarring as the realization that one of its crewmembers is not anonymous at all - the script was co-authored by Robert Altman. Yet why did he neglect to discuss it in his book Altman on Altman?

In short, the God-damnedest things ever seen might best be classified as outsider art. Like their musical and artistic counterparts The Shaggs and Henry Darger, these films simply cannot be explained, and do not need to be.

All films will be preceded by rare and bizarre archival shorts, curated by Stephen Parr/Oddball Films, San Francisco.

Complete descriptions of the films are available on the Doc site:

  • April 2 at 9:00 • Glen or Glenda (Ed Wood, 1953)
  • April 9 at 9:00 • Corn's-a-Poppin (Robert Woodburn, 1956)
  • April 16 at 9:00 • Alice in Wonderland (Norman McLeod, 1933)
  • April 23 at 9:00 • This Day and Age (Cecil B. DeMille, 1933)
  • April 30 at 9:00 • The Lash of the Penitentes (Zelma Carroll, 1937)
  • May 7 at 9:30 • Bill and Coo & Dogway Melody (Dean Reisner & Zion Myers, 1948 and Jules White, 1930)
  • May 14 at 9:00 • If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? (Ron Ormond, 1971)
  • May 21 at 9:00 • The Terror of Tiny Town (Sam Newfield, 1938)
  • May 28 at 9:30 • Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1978)
  • June 4 at 9:30 • SPECIAL EVENT: Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996)

Tickets are $5, or you can buy a pass good for every film in the entire quarter for $26.

Doc Films
Max Palevsky Cinema
Ida Noyes Hall
1212 E. 59th St
Chicago, IL 60637

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Monday, March 30th, 2009 at 1:07 pm

Filed under Film.