Criterion Sunday 415: The Naked Prey (1965)

The idea of a man on the run for his life reminds me a bit of an early Criterion Collection film, The Most Dangerous Game (1932), although this is much less camply genre-inflected. After all, it seems to be rehearsing some form of colonial politics, albeit as seen by the white guy at its centre (writer/director/actor Cornel Wilde). For an international co-production set in Africa in the 1960s, I could say it’s not as racist as I had feared, but that’s not to say it’s not deeply problematic, just that I’ve seen much worse (sadly; another Criterion film, Sanders of the River, comes to mind). Visually it has a sort of National Geographic view of tribal rituals, and while it allows its tribespeople the dignity of some agency, and credits them prominently, there’s still a slightly leering view of half-naked people, and the lack of subtitles for their speech puts it at some remove from their point of view. Still, it integrates the local musical traditions quite nicely, and there’s a certain degree of thrill in the chase, even if it all stays fairly firmly on the side of the colonialists.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Cornel Wilde; Writers Clint Johnston and Don Peters; Cinematographer H.A.R. Thomson; Starring Cornel Wilde, Ken Gampu; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 11 April 2021.

Criterion Sunday 414: Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

I mean, clearly this cult 70s road movie is divisive but I can’t really see how it would be otherwise. Like Zabriskie Point the year before, it starts with a narrative and then just sort of breaks it open, exposing the existentialism just beneath the surface. Here, we quickly get the setup of James Taylor’s “Driver” and Dennis Wilson’s “Engineer” driving across the States, picking up drag races for money, who challenge Warren Oates’ “GTO” to a race for car ownership. But almost as soon as that idea is introduced, it sort of goes by the wayside, and they end up travelling together, helping one another out after a fashion, and competing (in their minds at least, if not hers) over the “girl” (Laurie Bird). Part of what I like about the film is this bold way with de-centring the narrative expectations, so eventually it becomes a rather more pure film about the landscape, the road, and the endless deferment of resolution in the characters’ lives. Road movies are always about the journey rather than the destination, but this really is literally just the journey and nothing else.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Monte Hellman; Writers Rudolph Wurlitzer and Will Corry; Cinematographer Jack Deerson; Starring James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird, Warren Oates; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 9 April 2021 (and originally on VHS at home, Wellington, June 2000).

Criterion Sunday 413: 醉いどれ天使 Yoidore Tenshi (Drunken Angel, 1948)

Not long before Kurosawa made his international breakthrough Rashomon came this first film with actor Toshiro Mifune. It’s a post-war genre film, in which Mifune plays Matsunaga, a young, rakish gangster who seems to be doing well for himself in this amoral world, but whose boss Okada (Reisaburo Yamamoto) comes back into the picture after a stretch in jail, complicating things already made complicated by an illness. The titular character is the doctor played by Takashi Shimura, an alcoholic but one who’s doing his best to help his patients, including Mifune’s gangster. A lot of this feels like a commentary on the period, a time of American occupation, with the bleak ruined landscapes and stagnant ponds of water which have accumulated amongst the twisted wreckage of the city providing its own drama (a feeling of brokenness that would be recaptured in later films dealing with this period, like Seijun Suzuki’s Gate of Flesh). But you also get the feeling that the feeling of societal breakdown, the anger that Mifune’s character uses to lash out at the doctor and the world, is part of the response to this post-war feeling, evoking a certain powerlessness, but if that’s the case, Kurosawa manages to find a small vestige of hope amongst the ruin.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Kurosawa and Keinosuke Uegusa 植草圭之助; Cinematographer Takeo Ito 伊藤武夫; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎, Takashi Shimura, 志村喬, Reisaburo Yamamoto 山本礼三郎, Michiyo Kogure 木暮実千代; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 3 April 2021.

Criterion Sunday 412: Gycklarnas afton (Sawdust and Tinsel, 1953)

There is, rarely, any film so bleak as one set in a travelling circus, it sometimes seems. This film predates Bergman’s travelling players of The Seventh Seal (a much funnier film), but is set closer to the contemporary world, and has some of the visual acuity he would continue to display in later films. There’s a gorgeous use of monochrome cinematography, deep and penetrating shadows and blown-out sunny shots (as in the flashback retelling of the clown’s humiliation) thanks to Sven Nykvist, his first collaboration of what would be many with Bergman. That early scene with the clown (Anders Ek), though, is very much a microcosm of what the film ends up being about: men and women humiliating one another in love. Our circus master Albert (Åke Grönberg) is desperate, it turns out, to leave behind the carny’s life, his younger girlfriend Anne (Harriet Andersson) finds herself attracted to an actor (Hasse Ekman) who turns out to be a creepy abuser, and some desultory fighting ensues that leaves everyone needing to pick up the pieces. There’s not much hope in the end, just ruined lives, and if the characters keep on living them, you get the sense that it won’t be long before they try again to get out by whatever means necessary.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s relatively little in the way of extras on this Blu-ray, but there’s a short introduction by Bergman filmed in 2003, in which he relates some scathing contemporary reviews he received, as well as the feeling that he quite likes this early film of his.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographers Hilding Bladh and Sven Nykvist; Starring Åke Grönberg, Harriet Andersson, Hasse Ekman, Anders Ek, Gunnar Björnstrand; Length 92 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 2 April 2021.

Criterion Sunday 411: Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

Not really sure where to start with this one, but of course it must be understood that it’s a TV series, not a movie; it’s not designed to be watched as a single unit, and indeed I watched it in five sittings over the past week and a half. That said, it feels like a full expression of director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s vision, with the carnivalesque, the nasty and bitter, the rank misogyny of desperate men, and the endless forbearance of easily discarded women.

Its setting is late-20s Berlin, and though the rise of the Nazi Party is somewhere in the background and is rarely far from the viewer’s mind (not least because the entire enterprise is sort of a state of the diseased nation piece in allegorical miniature), it’s rarely explicitly mentioned in the film. The set design drips with brown sepia tones, mostly being set in a series of slummy apartments and a bar where recently-released criminal Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht) consorts with odious types like Gottfried John’s Reinhold and Frank Buchrieser’s Meck. For the first half he avers the criminal life, trying on a series of ‘respectable’ professions like selling shoelaces or hawking newspapers (albeit the Völkischer Beobachtung, the Nazi paper), until eventually he is ground down enough by fate to find himself pulled back into the work of the criminals he’s surrounded by — that much is hardly a surprise. He remains, however absurdly it may seem, attractive to women and a number of them (the actors all familiar from Fassbinder’s other films) move through his life, as we learn of the reason he was in prison in the first place, and the repeated insistence on his crime (the murder of an earlier girlfriend), makes it clear that he is not only no saint, but also that part of this world is a toxic misogyny that is normalised as part of the operation of society. That doesn’t exactly make it easy to watch, though, however much it may be clear this is Fassbinder’s point (and presumably of Döblin, the original author).

Visually, though, it’s quite something. Aside from the set design, there are many bravura pieces of filmmaking, long takes choreographing actors entering and exiting the frame almost balletically, or shots through cages and tracking around subterranean settings. It sweeps you up in this bitter, nasty world very easily and pulls you through what amounts to almost 15 hours of a descent into madness, made literal in the final epilogue episode, as all the incipient drama in Franz’s life become a whirling mess of hallucinatory drama soundtracked by fragments of music from across the canon (from Leonard Cohen and Kraftwerk to snatches of opera). It’s certainly an achievement of sorts, however little it feels like something I’d want to revisit in a hurry, and it’s worth the time.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Rainer Werner Fassbinder (based on the novel by Alfred Döblin); Cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger; Starring Günter Lamprecht, Gottfried John, Franz Buchrieser, Barbara Sukowa, Hanna Schygulla, Brigitte Mira; Length 902 minutes (in 14 episodes).

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Thursday 4 March [episodes 1-2], Friday 5 March [episodes 3-6] and Thursday 11 March [episodes 7-9], and at a friend’s home (YouTube streaming), Friday 12 March [episodes 10-12] and Sunday 14 March 2021 [episodes 13-14].

Criterion Sunday 410: Under the Volcano (1984)

Alcoholics, it turns out, are rather boring and interminable people when put on film. This one does a good job of capturing the spiral in which Albert Finney’s character Geoffrey is trapped, a consul working in a small town in Mexico just before WW2, whose wife Yvonne has apparently left him and who is not making much effort to hold himself together. He has turned, fairly heavily, to drinking, as one imagines a lot of British colonial figures have done in the past, but that really does seem to be all that defines him, as he stumbles from one bar and one encounter with some local colour to another. Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset) returns one morning after the Day of the Dead festivities, and his younger brother too (Anthony Andrews), and together they hash out their various fallings-out, as things get ever more bleak for Geoffrey. There’s a lot of imagery of death — as you might imagine given the setting and festivities — which feels fairly ominous alongside the titular volcano, and it all amounts to a sort of allegory about the British abroad, which is persuasive in its way, though hardly the most fun to watch. It’s just a cavalcade of self-pity and immiseration enlivened by the setting and the fine acting.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Huston; Writer Guy Gallo (based on the novel by Malcolm Lowry); Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa; Starring Albert Finney, Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Andrews; Length 112 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 26 March 2021.

Criterion Sunday 409: Days of Heaven (1978)

I’m hardly a Terrence Malick fanboy (at least, not based on his output over the last decade or so) but one or two of his films really get to me, and this is one. You can see a lot of the aspects of his style that he would develop further in his 21st century work — for example, a focus on nature and wind sweeping through grass, or a propensity for the camera to drift off and focus on some still life little image in microcosm rather than dwell on plot or melodrama, as well as a largely unspoken Christian underpinning to the broad sweep of the film and its themes. The Criterion Collection’s previous release was Breathless and, for all the enormous difference in setting and feel (Malick’s film is set in 1916 Texas), there are some genetic similarities to that, like the occasional handheld shots, location shooting with natural lighting, not to mention a plot in which the lead character’s murder of an authority figure is pushed far into the background, and quite often the plot doesn’t even feel that important. Days of Heaven is a film composed of feeling above all: the dappled colours of the ‘golden hour’ (the time of day after the sun has set, and still the most well-known thing about this film, even though there’s plenty that’s shot during the morning and night as well); the poetic voiceover by Linda Manz; and the meandering sense that this isn’t about what happens in the end but about the beauty we’ve witnessed along the way. Luckily this kind of visual cinema is what appeals to me.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Aside from a commentary, the extras are four short piece split into two headings, “Actors” and “Camera”. For the actors section, there’s an audio interview with Richard Gere and a video one with Sam Shepard, both of whom recall Malick’s methods for eliciting a performance and his shy self-effacing way on set.
  • The “Camera” interviews are with the camera operator John Bailey as well as with Haskell Wexler, who took over from Almendros when the latter had to leave the project to go do a Truffaut film. Legend says that Wexler was miffed at not receiving a full credit, but he concedes in retrospect that he was just continuing the work set in place by Almendros. Either way, what a visual achievement.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Terrence Malick; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, Linda Manz; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 14 May 1998, and at BFI Southbank, London, Sunday 11 September 2011 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 20 March 2021).

Criterion Sunday 408: À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960)

I’m sure we’ve all seen Breathless a lot of times (I’ve already reviewed it at greater length on this blog). Sometimes it feels like — though it’s not — the first truly modern film, mainly because of its place at the head of the French New Wave, one that may not have even created that template (improvisational, street shooting, up-front love for American genre cinema), but certainly popularised it and had the most cool of those early works (works by Varda, Chabrol and Truffaut have better claims to being earlier). Watching it for the nth time (maybe the fifth, maybe the eighth, I’m not sure), it strikes me that I don’t remember a lot of the shots and the scenes because it’s very much not about plot. It’s about attitude and style, about the jump cuts, and the posing that Belmondo does at the shrine of Bogart and the other tough guys of cinema (also, er, Debbie Reynolds it seems, with those exaggerated facial gestures she does in Singin’ in the Rain), echoing this bravado with hollow quips about women’s fecklessness — even though he’s the one that can’t stay still or keep any money on him. So all these guys with European names who drift through, details about a crime (he’s on the run for killing a cop), just become background to a rehearsal of celebrity by Belmondo and Seberg, looking glamorous and catching the camera’s light as they try to out-run the plot’s machinations.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a series of five contemporary interviews from French TV, a couple with Godard, and one each with Belmondo, Seberg and Jean-Pierre Melville. It’s striking how much more confrontational the one with Seberg is, as the interviewer constantly harps on at her career ups and downs, at a period in rehab, and just keeps on having a go at her, which seems unfair. Belmondo weirdly does his surrounded by sculptures, while Godard dons his customary sunglasses.
  • A more recent interview from 2007 with assistant director Pierre Rissient, and the DoP Raoul Coutard, as well as another with Donn Pennebaker, who talks about working with Godard himself later in the 60s, as well as the impact of Breathless. All add a little to an understanding of quite how Godard’s working processes were, and how they were so different from what was accepted as usual at the time.
  • Mark Rappaport contributes a 20-minute piece about Jean Seberg. He made his own feature-length biopic, From the Journals of Jean Seberg, so he has plenty of research to draw on. She had a fascinating life, truly, which accounts for the several films that exist about her, but it seems like her early experiences with Otto Preminger weren’t the most positive, and may have been a bad way to start out.
  • One of the many extras is a 10 minute visual essay written (but not spoken) by Jonathan Rosenbaum which picks up on just a few of the visual cues and links this work in with his earlier writing as a critic. For some reason the voiceover guy insists on saying “Irish shots” instead of “iris shots” or maybe I’m just mishearing him? Anyway, that’s what I took from it.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean-Luc Godard; Writers Godard and François Truffaut; Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 19 March 2021 (and several times before, first on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1997 and at university, Wellington, May 1998, and later on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 27 August 2013).

Criterion Sunday 407: Mala Noche (aka Bad Night, 1986)

Gus Van Sant’s feature debut, and I suppose it fits loosely into the era’s “New Queer Cinema”, though it stands apart but not having quite the same counter-cultural self-consciousness perhaps, by which I mean this is loose and poetic and less political in nature. It’s about this one guy, Walt (Tim Streeter), a real person upon whose autobiography it’s based, who happens to be chasing a young man (Johnny, played by Doug Cooeyate). For a low-budget film it uses its lack of resources well, creating a monochrome aesthetic heavy on the pools of light and shadow, with an evocative sense of style in these little moments snatched from something of a Nouvelle Vague feeling. That said, its protagonist is this struggling young guy running a shop who seems to have a big opinion about himself and his pursuit of younger Mexican guys, whom he isn’t even sure are 18, is callously objectifying. A lot of the film is in Spanish, but Walt doesn’t much seem to care about his enamorado Johnny, so much as about the chase. It makes for a film that’s about race and class and power in ways that aren’t always comfortable, and don’t always feel fully examined, because they’re the politics of young men looking for sex.

NOTE: The Criterion edition lists this as 1985, though it appears from IMDb that its earliest public appearance at festivals was in 1986 but those dates may not be exhaustive.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Gus Van Sant (based on the novel by Walt Curtis); Cinematographer John J. Campbell; Starring Tim Streeter, Doug Cooeyate, Ray Monge; Length 78 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 13 March 2021.

Criterion Sunday 406: “Martha Graham: Dance on Film”

There are three films in this collection, each around half an hour in length and made for American public television at a time when this kind of programming was possible. The first, A Dancer’s World (1957) is intended as an introduction to the Martha Graham Dance Company and her place in American dance, something I appreciate given my lack of knowledge of this major area of cultural work. Dance always seemed rather forbidding to me, and even if it’s more often seen on-screen nowadays in its contemporary street dance varieties, it still has a beauty and sophistication that is only amplified by the ballet-like compositions seen here. Graham narrates while fixing her make-up and costume in the dressing room; she introduces her company who enter the dance studio to illustrate some techniques, but it’s presented as a sequence with only the barest commentary. Instead, it’s the dancers’ limbs and actions that provide the context, with Graham delivering in his imperious way the diktats of her craft: control over the body, the elevation of the genius through a decade or more of practise. And in the end, for all her own resistance to filming it, and the fact this was made for public TV, the effect is rather cinematic after all, elegant yet mysterious.

The other two films are productions of her work presented without commentary (or any contextualisation or, indeed, any speaking at all). I don’t know how Appalachian Spring (1958) ranks as a film; it’s clearly a filmed piece of staged dance theatre and while certainly the blocking has been done with an eye towards its reproduction on screen, it’s still essentially a stage piece. That said, this is the kind of thing, a strange curio that stands somewhat to the side of the film history, which intrigues me, because it mainly exists to showcase the work of pioneering dancer, choreographer and artist Martha Graham to a wider world. She’s technically too old to be playing this role of a new bride (having entered her 60s), but avoiding close-ups alongside the modernist staging means it works perfectly fine. The language of dance, though, quite aside from the language of cinema, is its own thing and is rather opaque to me, but it seems that within these movements and this choreography, the motion of bodies, the gestures and contortions, there’s an entire world of feeling. There’s a certain awe to watching the long loose limbs of Matt Turney as the Pioneer Woman, so elegant (glamorous even) and so aware at every moment of how her motion will affect her clothing or how she interacts with those around her, or the gentle little skips of Bertram Ross’s Preacher, and soon enough it’s all over because this is still just 32 minutes in length, but it’s a lovely 32 minutes.

The final of the three is Night Journey (1960). I found this filmed performance less successful than Appalachian Spring, though I remain as yet without any significant status as a dance expert. There is so much that is mysterious to me about the form, but somehow this piece, derived from the story of Oedipus and Jocasta via Sophocles, seems a little bit more mannered, or perhaps Graham’s movements feel a little stiffer — though that may be as much to do with the subject matter, the studied formality of the tragedic mode. But then the group of chorus dancers come in, and somehow they create a sense of wonder, seemingly floating above the stiffness of the tragedy, so long and thin and with such easy movements. However, it certainly makes an impression as part of a trilogy of three films about Graham and her work.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are a large number of extras which contextualise the work of Martha Graham, which is just as well for me. Perhaps the most illuminating on the first disc is a comparison piece by dance critic and historian Deborah Jowitt, which contrasts the 1958 filmed version with a silent 16mm film made in 1944, starring Merce Cunningham as the Preacher. Jowitt is very good at detailing how the gestures and movements are supposed to come across, and what changes were made for the filming, and it becomes rather engrossing, bringing out details that my untrained eye was unable to detect the first time around.
  • Another extra is a short few minutes’ excerpt from a TV programme (perhaps from the 1970s or 80s) in which composer Aaron Copland touches on Appalachian Spring and his work with Graham.
  • Aside from Graham, the other important figure in these films is producer Nathan Kroll, who negotiated with Graham to get her on screen, and who tells the story of working with her to realise this three-part project. We only hear his words, but they are illustrated by stills and clips from the films.
  • There’s a bit more about Kroll in a 12-minute interview with Ron Simon, who discusses Kroll’s important place in television. His work with Graham was just part of an interest in masterclasses with key cultural figures (like cellist Pablo Casals, or opera singer Luciano Pavarotti), showing a deep and abiding interest in how masters of their art teach students. Kroll himself was it seems a thwarted violinist and wanted to imagine himself via these surrogates as an expert of sorts.
  • The first disc is rounded out by interviews with the two editors who worked on the three films, Eleanor Hamerow and Miriam Arsham, who speak about their work on the films and also touch on why women were so frequently found as editors.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 14 March 2021.

A Dancer’s World (1957)
Director/Cinematographer Peter Glushanok; Writers Martha Graham and LeRoy Leatherman; Starring Martha Graham; Length 31 minutes.

Appalachian Spring (1958)
Director/Cinematographer Peter Glushanok; Writer Martha Graham; Starring Martha Graham, Matt Turney, Bertram Ross; Length 32 minutes.

Night Journey (1960)
Director Alexander Hammid; Cinematographer Stanley Meredith; Starring Martha Graham, Bertram Ross, Paul Taylor; Length 30 minutes.