Film series: Zany, cute, interesting
How does cinema make you feel?
This series pays close attention to the feelings that cinema inspires. Spanning the 1930s to today, it unites screwball comedies with masterpieces of Japanese kawaii, African nouvelle vague with path-breaking documentaries. These are films that make your head spin at their exuberant energy; films that make you melt and go ‘aww’; films that reconfigure how you see the world: ‘aha!’
Zany, cute, interesting is inspired by cultural theorist Sianne Ngai’s insight that the colloquial ways we respond to artworks reveal something about contemporary society. We feel zany because of our frantic working lives, our love for cute things indexes the cult of commodities, we are easily bored and on the hunt for novelty because of the lightning-fast flow of information around us. How have filmmakers elicited these affects and transformed them over time?
The series opens with a lineage of zanies whose manic performances blur the line between work and play. It bounces from Charlie Chaplin in 1930s LA (Modern times) to Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin in 1950s New York (Artists and models), hitches a ride with young outlaws in Dakar (Touki bouki), and ends up in Bucharest with Toni Erdmann, 21st-century cinema’s quintessential crank.
Next, we peer into the pint-sized realm of the squishy and adorable. In some films, the ‘cute’ hinges on sentimental feelings toward the diminutive, infantile and unthreatening. In others, suspicion and hostility mingle with tenderness: perhaps those doe-eyes are a trap. This strand features cute kids (Ohayō), creepy kids (The bad seed), a romantic drama enchanted by small things (The earrings of Madame de…) and exemplary cinema by two high priests of millennial cute: Wes Anderson and Hayao Miyazaki.
The ‘interesting’ sparks with curiosity and wonder. In the final strand, we chase this appetite for engrossing true stories across a quartet of acclaimed documentaries. We are introduced to mid-century travelling Bible salesmen, an eccentric VHS activist, resistance filmmakers in Sudan, and the hidden workings of the New York Public Library. These are docos which shine a light on our information-saturated world.
Image: Still from Ohayō courtesy Shochiku Co Ltd
Wednesdays 2pm & 7.15pm, Sundays 2pm
10 March - 16 May 2021
How to get your ticket
Tickets available outside the Domain Theatre from one hour before each screening.
Early-bird tickets can be booked in advance online via Qtix from Monday 22 February 10am.
See: Film ticket FAQs
Location: Domain Theatre
Dir Charlie Chaplin 1936 (US)
89 mins 35mm B&W Rated G
Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard
Chaplin’s iconic performance as a factory worker in Depression-era LA defined the shape of the modern clown who bounds between jobs with frenetic zeal and a knack for rolling with the punches. His exaggerated physicality – all twitchy reflexes – expresses the breakneck demands of the assembly line which literally chews him up. He’s spat back out as the unemployed Tramp, who proceeds to meet a love interest (Goddard), ingest cocaine, roller-skate in a department store, and sing nonsense verse (this was the first time the world heard Chaplin’s voice, after two decades of silent pantomime). ‘A masterpiece. The opening sequence is possibly Chaplin’s greatest encounter with the twentieth century’ – Chicago Reader.
Dir Maren Ade 2016 (Germany/Austria)
162 mins Digital Colour Rated M
Sandra Hüller, Peter Simonischek
German, Romanian with English subtitles
Widely acclaimed as one of the best films of the 2010s, Toni Erdmann is a hilarious odd-couple drama. Winfried (Simonischek) makes a trip to Bucharest and slowly infiltrates his workaholic daughter Ines’ business circles. He’s a practical joker with a penchant for wigs and fake teeth, she’s a high-flying consultant for the oil industry. Her version of performance involves impressing clients in meetings, his involves impersonating the German ambassador. The wackiness catches on. Ines begins to loosen up, play along and reveal her own bizarre comic sensibility in set pieces including a belting rendition of Whitney Houston’s ‘Greatest love of all’. Ade’s brilliant satire of neoliberal creeds of self-optimisation was inspired by classic screwballs like Bringing up baby, comedian Andy Kaufman and her own father.
Bringing up baby
Dir Howard Hawks 1938 (US)
102 mins 35mm B&W Rated G
Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant
‘Good morning, David. Would you like a leopard?’ 1930s Hollywood screwball reached peak zany with Bringing up baby. Cary Grant stars as Dr David Huxley, a straightlaced palaeontologist who encounters hare-brained heiress Susan (Hepburn) on a golfing trip. A joyous torrent of repartee and pratfalls involving stolen cars, a pet terrier, big cats and a missing brontosaurus bone ensues. While David is preoccupied with finding funds for his natural history museum, Susan’s carefree escapades belong to a world beyond the nine-to-five, where upper class entitlement (and fast talking) opens doors and mayhem magically resolves in her wake.
Artists and models
Dir Frank Tashlin 1955 (US)
109 mins 35mm-to-digital Colour Rated G
Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine
No director intuitively understood how to harness the hyper energy of comedians Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin like ex-animator Frank Tashlin. Here, the duo play impoverished roommates whose fortunes turn when Rick (Martin) translates Eugene’s (Lewis) nightmares into a comic-book series. There are subplots spanning Cold War spies and an Anita Ekberg cameo, but it’s all about the pair’s lunatic antics. Lewis’ body contorts like a Looney Tunes character in physical gags which skewer working life in 1950s America. Merging pulp storylines with pop art visuals, Tashlin once described his subject matter as ‘the nonsense of what we call civilisation’. A favourite of the French Cahiers du cinéma critics, Artists and models received high praise from Jean-Luc Godard: ‘Henceforth, when you talk about a comedy, don’t say “it’s Chaplinesque”; say loud and clear, “it’s Tashlinesque”.’
Dir Djibril Diop Mambéty 1973 (Senegal)
95 mins 35mm-to-digital Colour Unclassified 15+
Magaye Niang, Mareme Niang
Wolof, French with English subtitles
‘Par-ee…Par-ee…Par-ee.’ Heeding Josephine Baker’s siren call, Mory (Magaye Niang) and Anta (Mareme Niang) dream of a new life in the French capital. Cruising Dakar on a motorcycle adorned with zebu horns, the young lovers hustle to fund their escape. Mambéty’s delirious joyride captures a post-independence Senegal grappling with neo-colonialism and corruption. Touki bouki heralded the emergence of an African nouvelle vague which embraced non-linear narrative, exuberant fantasy sequences and the nonchalant cool of young outlaws. As Mambéty explains, ‘griot … is the word for what I do and the role that the filmmaker has in society … the griot is a messenger of one’s time, a visionary and the creator of the future’.
Restored in 2008 by The World Cinema Foundation at Cineteca di Bologna/L’Immagine Ritrovata in association with the family of Djibril Diop Mambéty. Restoration funding provided by Armani, Cartier, Qatar Airways and Qatar Museum Authority.
Dir Martin Scorsese 1985 (US)
97 mins 35mm Colour Rated M
Griffin Dunne, Rosanna Arquette, Catherine O’Hara
After a long day at the office, Paul (Dunne) clocks off and heads downtown to meet a mysterious femme fatale (Arquette). Things go from bad to worse as he loses his cash, discovers a suicide, precipitates a flood, and is pursued through SoHo by a vigilante mob in a Mr Softee truck. There’s never been a schmuck who’s had to work harder to have a good time. As Paul yells in exasperation: ‘What do you want from me? I’m just a word processor for chrissakes!’ After hours rejuvenated Scorsese’s passion for low-budget, guerrilla filmmaking following the foiled Paramount production of The last temptation of Christ. In his words, ‘It’s the only movie of mine that I can watch over and over again. It’s so funny to me … I thought it was a metaphor for the way we are living and for what I went through in LA trying to get The last temptation made. I just had a ball with it.’
Dir Yasujirō Ozu 1959 (Japan)
93 mins 35mm-to-digital Colour Rated G
Koji Shidara, Masahiko Shimazu
Japanese with English subtitles
In Ozu’s delightful comedy, two brothers take a vow of silence to coerce their parents into buying a TV. Their campaign plays out in a Tokyo suburb transformed by an influx of colourful appliances and white picket fences. The rise of mass consumer culture in post-war Japan was accompanied by the explosion of kawaii, a distinctively Japanese aesthetic of cuteness associated with weakness and vulnerability. Kawaii can be traced to the Edo period (1615–1868) in paintings and ukiyo-e prints featuring baby animals and blushing women. Here, it manifests in the adventures of two young sumo-obsessives, silently making fart jokes, while their parents gossip over the neighbour’s new washing machine.
The bad seed + Dr Cute
Dir Mervyn LeRoy 1956 (US)
126 mins 35mm B&W Rated M
Patty McCormack, Nancy Kelly
Meet Rhoda Penmark: blue eyes, polka-dot pinafore, a vision of docile girlhood. When tragedy strikes on a school trip, Rhoda’s mother (Kelly) begins to believe that her little pollyanna may be to blame. Mervyn LeRoy’s cult psychodrama explores the sweet/sinister allure of the cute. Rhoda’s accentuated innocence (all pigtails and curtseys) invites tenderness but also suspicion as more mysterious deaths occur in her orbit. Featuring loopy pop-psychology and camp dialogue, The bad seed underlines the fact that the very word ‘cute’ derives from ‘acute’, meaning sharp-witted, shrewd and cunning. After MGM added an ‘adult’s only’ tag to its advertising, the film became one of the studio’s biggest hits of the year and later inspired Nick Cave to name his band in its honour.
Dir Rachel Maclean 2019 (Scotland)
5 mins Digital Colour Unclassified 12+
Why do some things make you go ‘aww’ but also ‘argh’? A primer on creepy cuteness courtesy of a Care Bear in a pink power suit.
The earrings of Madame de…
Dir Max Ophüls 1953 (France)
105 mins 35mm B&W Rated G
Danielle Darrieux, Vittorio De Sica, Charles Boyer
French with English subtitles
Ophüls’ opulent fin de siècle romance follows the movement of a pair of diamond earrings. Desperate for money, the spendthrift Madame de… (Darrieux) pawns a gift from her aristocrat husband (Boyer). As the earrings change hands in Parisian society they grow and diminish in value, seeming to take on a life of their own. While there is nothing twee about this contrivance, Ophüls’ film reminds us that the popularity of the ‘cute’ arose in tandem with 19th-century commodity culture. Gliding camerawork tours a Belle Époque milieu enchanted by small things and surface appearances (the director had originally planned to shoot the story entirely through reflections in mirrors, walls and ceilings). ‘The most perfect film ever made’ – film critic Andrew Sarris.
The Royal Tenenbaums
Dir Wes Anderson 2001 (US)
110 mins 35mm Colour Rated MA15+
Gwyneth Paltrow, Gene Hackman, Luke Wilson
Do you ever get over childhood? The Tenenbaums surely haven’t. All the kids were prodigies: Richie was a tennis star, Margot was a playwright, and Chas, as the voice-over explains, ‘started buying real estate in his early teens’. They have since washed up and now reunite in New York to farewell their eccentric paterfamilias (Hackman). Even as adults, the Tenenbaums’ family home seems drawn from a storybook, with grapefruit-pink walls, a disused ballroom, and a canary-yellow tent pitched in the living room. Anderson constructs this dysfunctional, dollhouse world with rectilinear framing (like something by Ozu), meticulous set design and melancholic retro pop. His distinctive aesthetic spoke to the ukulele-strumming, analogue-loving zeitgeist of early 2000s ‘twee’: nostalgic but cynical, cutesy but deadpan.
Dir Hayao Miyazaki 2008 (Japan)
103 mins 35mm Colour Rated G
Yuria Nara, Hiroki Doi
English language version
Who could be more adorable than Ponyo? With her big eyes and bulbous cheeks, this tiny goldfish is an ambassador of ‘aww’. In Miyazaki’s beloved animation, Ponyo (a name chosen as an onomatopoeia of what ‘squishy softness’ feels like when touched) washes up on shore and is taken home by a young boy named Sosuke. She soon sprouts legs, starts to speak and joins the family. As with his other films, Miyazaki exploits the cuddly creature’s ability to evoke our impulse for protection and care to craft a compelling fable about environmental precarity. The global popularity of Studio Ghibli’s cast of anthropomorphic heroes has redefined the look and feel of millennial cuteness, spawning a glut of Cat Bus phone covers, Totoro plush toys and No Face onesies.
Dirs Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks 1928 (US)
8 mins 16mm B&W
Dir Alice Rohrwacher 2014 (Italy)
111 mins Digital Colour Rated
Maria Alexandra Lungu, Alba Rohrwacher, Monica Bellucci, Sam Louwyck
Italian, French, German with English subtitles
Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2014, Alice Rohrwacher’s (Happy as Lazzaro) second feature centres on a family of Tuscan beekeepers. Their ramshackle farm is overseen by a moody patriarch (Louwyck) and kept afloat by his wife (Alba Rohrwacher) and daughters. A reality TV show hosted by a bedazzled Monica Bellucci in faux-Etruscan garb arrives in town, promising that the family ‘that represents our traditional values best will receive a bag of money’. This is a film in thrall to the diminutive (bees, children, small-scale artisanal production) but also alert to their susceptibility to commodification and violence. Hélène Louvart’s sun-dappled 16mm cinematography drifts to the rhythms of the working day, pausing on fleeting moments such as when a bee emerges from the teenage heroine’s mouth or when honey oozes across a farmhouse floor. ‘Like a rural Fellini, Rohrwacher mixes the mundane with the absurd to create a sometimes fabulous tale that always feels palpably real’ – film critic Elise Nakhnikian, Slate.
Dir Albert and David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin 1969 (US)
91 mins 16mm B&W Rated G
Paul Brennan, Charles McDevitt, James Baker
Divine revelation and all the world’s knowledge – illustrated and alphabetised – available for only three instalments of $49.95! In this landmark documentary, the Maysles hit the road with four travelling salesmen as they hock luxury editions of the Bible and encyclopedias to poor souls across the East Coast. Newly portable lightweight cameras draw us inside the living rooms of working-class Catholics besieged by Paul Brennan (aka ‘The Badger’) and his crew. We witness their venal sales tactics and hear the bitterness behind their bravado in after-dark monologues shot at roadside motels. The film’s vivid immediacy was a hallmark of the ‘direct cinema’ movement, a mode of nonfiction storytelling which, as David Maysles explains, sought ‘not to interfere with what is going on but to record the truth as it happens’. ‘An unforgettable image of America’ – Vincent Canby, The New York Times.
Ex libris: The New York Public Library
Dir Frederick Wiseman 2017 (US)
196 mins Digital Colour Unclassified 15+
Patti Smith, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Note earlier start time
Across a career spanning five decades, Frederick Wiseman has captured the behind-the-scenes workings of hospitals, museums, prisons and schools. In Ex libris, he crafts a monumental biography of the New York Public Library, a network of 88 branches sprawling from Manhattan to the Bronx. Sitting in on book clubs, recitals and talks with Patti Smith and Ta-Nehisi Coates, Wiseman documents an institution transforming from a ‘passive repository’ to an ‘education centre’. The film is an ode to the importance of civic spaces where anyone can turn up and use a laptop, enquire into the origins of unicorns, or browse the photo clipping files (a collection with headings like ‘dogs in action’, which Andy Warhol frequently stole from). Wiseman also explores the structural barriers which continue to hinder access to the ‘commons’, including the city’s stark digital divide (one in three New Yorkers don’t have access to the internet at home). ‘Urgent and invigorating. A vision of extraordinary warmth and fellow feeling. A heroic act, insofar as art can be described as “heroic”. Nothing short of emancipatory.’ – Nick Pinkerton, Artforum.
Talking about trees + Jamal
Dir Suhaib Gasmelbari 2020 (Sudan)
93 mins Digital Colour Unclassified 12+
Ibrahim Shaddad, Suleiman Ibrahim
Arabic with English subtitles
‘Cinema for the people, by the people’. So runs the motto of the Sudanese Film Group, an independent collective that was formed in 1989 and soon banned following a military coup which outlawed most cultural production. Three decades later, its charismatic founding members – Ibrahim Shaddad, Manar Al-Hilo, Suleiman Ibrahim and Altayeb Mahdi – reunite in an effort to resurrect cinema in Sudan. Their dream of reviving a dilapidated outdoor movie theatre is thwarted at every turn by red tape and religious censorship. Despite these setbacks, Gasmelbari’s intimate portrait captures the cineastes’ enduring friendship, humour (watch for Shaddad’s imitation of Gloria Swanson), and defiant belief in the political power of collective cinemagoing. Named one of the top films of 2020 by The New Yorker, this is essential viewing for all interested in expanding the horizons of cinema history. As Shaddad simpers in a chiffon scarf: ‘I’m ready for my close up’.
Dir Ibrahim Shaddad 1981 (Sudan)
13 mins 16mm-to-digital B&W Unclassified 12+
Recorder: the Marion Stokes project
Dir Matt Wolf 2019 (US)
87 mins Digital Colour Unclassified 12+
Marion Stokes, Michael Metelits
For over 30 years, Marion Stokes secretly recorded American television all day, every day. A civil rights-era communist turned wealthy recluse, her obsession began at the dawn of the 24 hour news cycle with the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis and ended when she passed away in 2012. In between, Stokes filled 70,000 VHS tapes with images of revolutions, wars, catastrophes, bloopers, talk shows and commercials that reveal how television shaped the world. Before the popularisation of the term ‘fake news’, Stokes foresaw the power of the media to sway public opinion and meddle with facts. She viewed her idiosyncratic project as a radical effort to preserve truthful information (and the truth of how information works upon us) for future generations. ‘Outstanding … An information revolutionary, Stokes, despite her decades of isolation, touched the nerve centre of the times.’ – Best Films of 2019, The New Yorker.