Synapse // 1970 // 91 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // July 8th, 2005
Sex explodes in the film they tried to stop.
After an odd opening tableau where buck-naked people do a hoedown in a loft full of hay (and it's full frontal time, baby), a decrepit old mummy with sex on its mind begins a dissertation on the gender wars. A judge catches his concubine hiding a lover in a large wooden trunk. He does what anyone would do with a coffin-like container: he buries it. We then see a fetish-friendly female fashion photographer in the middle of a medieval shoot. She teaches a meek male model the deadly secrets of capturing the wrong profile. Turns out, a sharp blade to the crotch is the very height of high street torture couture.
Next up on the ancient Egyptian's hormonal hit parade, a pair of scientists wants to procreate. But the medico mother soon learns that she carries a genetic defect that will render her impending infant blob-like. Indeed, a newborn dough ball is welcomed into the world. A female burglar does more than fleece a man living near the busiest airport in the world, while Lindy Leigh -- crack (whore) secret agent -- discovers how tricky the Morania embassy can be. As the Nile native continues his conversation, we witness a lonely man hoping to share his lizard love with a less than reptile-receptive prostitute. And finally, a matron tells her brand new butler that the reason her garden grows so well is that she's trapped the souls of all her former lovers in her flowers.
How very unusual, or as the animated bandage-wrapped artifact would say, how Bizarre.
Who ever thought that softcore sex could be boring. Well, the makers of Bizarre did. Or at least, that thought must have been in the back of their priggish pea brains when they decided to create a comment on modern morality with a combination horror film/humpfest philosophy. Trying for an omnibus feel, but barely able to manage a single coherent course of action, what we have here is experimental cinema playing at pulchritude, an attempt by a couple of carnal con artists to bilk British blokes out of their hard earned bangers and mash. The only thing that gets stiff in this movie is the upper lip of the languid Londoners required to drop their knickers for this nonsense. When Benny Hill slobbering like a spoiled four-year-old as he sneaks a peek at a lady's lingerie is more titillating, you know you need to change the channel.
It's hard to say exactly where Bizarre goes wrong, since there's very little in the film that's right to compare it to. Certainly, the anthology set-up is lamer than a one-legged sprinter, since it means there are more middling, misguided mini-movies here than one should have to tolerate. The short film format usually guarantees a quick pace, but in the case of this stillborn sex farce, the approach has the opposite effect. Seconds stretch to hours and minutes feel like lifetimes. Besides, there is no such thing as closure in these cinematic couplets. Like listening to an absent-minded blue comedian telling dirty jokes and forgetting the punch lines, each segment starts off with some minor promise, then backs off, quickly switching to the next sequence.
Which brings us to another of Bizarre's obvious stumbling blocks. The wholly antiseptic slap and tickle that we see on screen will only make unschooled zygotes blush. The ability to see male and/or female genitalia is all the eros this film has going for it, since the rest of the bed wrestling is passionless, antithetical to any arousal. Bizarre wants to preach about the never-ending battle between men and women, and even tries to connect these gender grapples to the boudoir. But all this does is give director Antony Balch a chance to stage his Curious Yellow yawn inducers like elements of a dance hall review.
But perhaps the biggest stumbling block to all this bubble and squeak is the complete lack of a point. Sure, skin and sin are fun, and if Balch and Bizarre merely wanted to give us a 90-minute montage of chests and cheeks doing the dirty boogie, we'd be happy. But there is some kind of crazy, crackpot message behind this product, a confusing combination of sexual liberation and social reevaluation. Socked away in all the surrealism is this notion that, when men and women get to slammin', something sinister occurs. How else do you explain models being emasculated, babies born looking like lumps of fatty flesh, or a man who associates sexuality with dinosaurs. The whole premise of Bizarre is founded on ideas so arcane that we just can't fathom what the frig is going on. As a result, we are left with three substantive strikes against a movie that wants to be perceptive, political and perverted. When it comes right down to it, however, Bizarre is just dull. And nothing is more anti-climactic than dreary diddling.
Synapse Films, which occasionally uncovers a diamond in the rough, can't be criticized for the entertainment value of their offering, but they can surely be praised for the manner in which they present it. In a clear case of a digital package far surpassing the product placed in it, this DVD is stupendous. Bizarre itself has been beautifully restored to its original 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen glory. Colors are mostly correct (there are a couple of questionable sequences) and the contrasts are clear and concise. Even in those moments when Balch goes all experimental on the celluloid, the image comes up trumps. On the sound side, the Dolby Digital Stereo is clean and crisp. Dialogue is always discernable, and the occasional stock music cues sound perfectly fine.
If there is one aspect that saves Synapse's presentation of Bizarre from being a total disaster, it's the amazingly rare and intensely interesting bonus material they dug up for the release. The company does its typically amazing job of supplementing this strangeness with an insightful commentary, a couple of Antony Balch's shorts made in conjunction with Beat genius William Burroughs, and an interview with the lizard-obsessed creative contributor to Bizarre, Elliot Stein.
The alternate narrative track with producer Richard Gordon and film scholar Tom Weaver is wonderful, a detailed discussion of both Bizarre's odd history and the amazing life of director Balch. Though producer and director only made a couple of films together (the most noted being the Hammer homage Horror Hospital) Gordon is obviously an admirer of his late friend (Balch died in 1980 of stomach cancer) and he has a lot of great anecdotes to tell. Equally informative is Elliot Stein, who uses his 11 minutes to breeze through a cornucopia of Bizarre-related concepts.
But the real find here are the Burroughs shorts. Towers Open Fire was made in 1963, while The Cut-Ups was made in 1966, and each one is a difficult, ultimately satisfying work of avant-garde performance art. Combining poetry, prose, art, camera tricks and craziness couched in deranged, dadaist ideals, we get two examples of film as a canvas, with both Burroughs and Balch using it for their own aesthetic pleasure. Some may find these films very trying, but they prove how experimental cinema can sometimes be the greater sum of some seemingly lesser parts (it also makes one wonder about what the proposed collaboration between Balch and Burroughs on their version of Naked Lunch would have looked like).
Too bad the same can't be said for Bizarre. Not quite horror, barely even exploitation, and more undeveloped than fully formed, there will be those who see a great deal of potential -- not to mention plentiful pulchritude -- in this sonnet to sexuality. But like most bad blank verse, there is truly nothing of merit here. The most unusual thing about this production is that anyone thought it had merit in the first place.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 1970
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Commentary Track with Executive Producer Richard Gordon and Film Scholar Tom Weaver
* Short Film -- Tower Open Fire
* Short Film -- The Cut-Ups
* Interview with Bizarre Writer and Actor Elliott Stein