Originality is hard to come by in cinema. Everything nowadays seems inspired by or remade from an established element, a previous artist or their classified classic canon. Even those movies that strike a cord of invention and freshness feel dated, thanks in part to endless homages, inside jokes, and backwards referencing. It's as if Quentin Tarantino stepped into the format with his video store geekdom swinging and cast an irreversible cloud over the entire creative community. A decade and a half later, little has changed. That's why something like Woodenhead resonates - even if it fails to fully entertain. As the vision of Florian Habicht, a German immigrant living in New Zealand, it's a prime example of outsized imagination meeting realized expectations to become an entity all its own. While it may not meet everyone's standards for a fine night at the Bijou, you can bet that someone, somewhere, is already constructing a cult-like shrine to its elements. Visually arresting, highly stylized, and narratively opaque, it's the closest thing to pure film since David Lynch lamented the horrors of child birth back in the '70s.
Gert works in a landfill, aiding the owner in the daily collection and cataloging of junk. One day, the boss asks his meek assistant to take his darling daughter, the mute "Princess" Plum to a far off town. There, she will marry one of many fiancés who have tried, and mysteriously failed, to make her their bride. On the promise of protecting her at all costs, Gert gets his wreck of a car, loads up the lass, and heads off into the New Zealand countryside. When it breaks down, they get a donkey and head out into the emptiness. There, they run into a literal collection of fairytale settings - a Goldilocks like abandoned house laden with food, a dark and dangerous wood ala Hansel and Gretel, a deal for a few magic beans circa Jack the Giant Killer - as well as an unusual collection of characters, including a cruel priest, a sinister circus strongman, and a trio of eccentric dancers.
At first, Woodenhead appears as all pretense. There's the stunning - if stilted - black and white photography that instantly reminds the viewer of Henry Spencer and his eventual Eraserhead. Even more bizarre was the approach to narrative. Writer/director Habicht originally conceived the tale as an aural experiment of sorts, a story told via voice over acting, narration, songs, and other sonic elements. He then decided to put images to the sounds, sometimes failing to match the performer onscreen with the individual on the soundtrack. The results are unnerving, unearthly...and unforgettable. And of course, there is the whole Brothers Grimm subtext, from the name of the traveling carnival in the story to the many fables referenced and reflected in the plotting. Sure, some of it can seem purposefully surreal, as if Habicht is trying to be arcane and obtuse, and a little of the monochrome mythos goes a very long way. Yet as a road picture where the journey is much more important than the participant or the goal, Woodenhead works. It's tough going at times, but often more rewarding than repellant.
Of course it helps that Habicht plays with established stories. This way, we have a frame of reference to get us past the perplexing bits. Granted, few people will no what to make of the "sex" scene which seems more stupefying than sensual. The 'before bedtime' narration is also very effective and disconcerting. It establishes a mischievous child-like tone that the film never forgets - or lives up to. The characters are also interesting in that they represent archetypes more than individuals. The overprotective father, the weak-willed sycophant, the spoiled, snobbish daughter - they are all here and essayed with a kind of dream logic tunnelvision that makes perfect sense - and hard identification. While some of the stops along the way feel forced and overtly obvious and the joy one derives from experiencing Habicht's shifts grows tiring after a while, Woodenhead remains a worthwhile endeavor. In some ways, it's like college or a dense novel - the more you are willing to put into it, the more you will get out of it.
It's not the smoothest or surest ride, however. Whenever someone falls too in love with their own perceived genius, the results can become insular and unobtainable. There are few times when this happens here, moments meant to signify something but only important to the man who conceived them. That's why Habicht is more Guy Maddin and madman Dave. At least Lynch appears to understand his own fevered pitch. Woodenhead often passes by like a whim, a stretch never solidly founded in anything real or recognizable. As the mismatched voices and Japanese B-movie dubbing drive the "aren't I cool" conceit into overdrive, we grown antsy, then aggravated. Luckily, the inherent beauty in some of the sequences, matched by the constant sense of adventure and discovery keep us from completely giving up. Again, Woodenhead will require more from you than you average mainstream Hollywood fare. Everything is not spelled out and, for the most part, you have to fill in a lot of blatant blanks. But if you give it a try and get hip to Habicht's rhythms, the movie will seep into your subconscious - and satisfy.
Though non-anamorphic, the widescreen letterboxed image of Woodenhead is excellent. The black and white is sharp without being too overly contrasted and the level of detail is sublime. While there are moments of simple softness (this was a lo-fi effort, don't forget), the monochrome does rival some of the big studio's best. Hats off to Habicht for realizing the mystical tone of his movie needed an equally evocative approach. The two tone style serves all aspects of the film expertly.
Remember - the voices aren't supposed to match. Also, the music and sonic backdrop are just as important as the dialogue. Perhaps that's why the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix is so chaotic. Conversations fade in and out while random noises fill in the gaps. Music moves in between the characters, sometimes rendering them irrelevant. Still, from a purely aural standpoint, the soundtrack is very evocative - and this transfer does a great job of maintaining its meaning.
WOW! Talk about added content. Olive Films really delivers on the bonus feature front. First off, there is a separate CD presenting the entire soundtrack. Since the project started out similarly, it's a terrific experience in and of itself. Next up is a commentary track featuring Habicht that really gets into the details of the narrative and the production itself. Then, there's a Behind the Scenes featurette that offers additional insights into the struggles of such a low budget effort. Add in a trailer, a music video, a photo gallery, a short film (entitled Liebstraume), a collection of odds and sods (including items called 'Circus Acts', 'Killer Ray in Bangkok', and 'Horoscopes with Lutz') and you have a DVD package that rivals the film it features for bizarre bits and perplexing pieces.
Woodenhead is not for everyone. For those who see the obvious reference in the title, it truly cannot match the masterful four year labor or love by everyone's favorite salesman for Transcendental Meditation. Anyone looking for logic or narrative cohesion will also be lost. Still, for a select few who don't mind a little insanity with their cinema, this is a Recommended experience. Those who go out of their way to find it will probably not be disappointed. On the other hand, remember this creative caveat - Woodenhead often feels like someone talking to themselves, telling jokes only they will understand and laughing at things only they would find funny. As an expression of personal passion and artistic drive, it is not to be dismissed. It's as original as they come. But as a work of uncomplicated accessibility or universal appeal, it's also easy to ignore.
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