Criterion Sunday 191: Jubilee (1978)

I don’t know what aspect of the punk spirit this speaks to — the messy avant-gardism and unpolished amateurishness, the gleefully garish colours (Toyah Willcox’s character Mad has hair which is a constant delight), the casual nudity, sex and violence — but it has a pleasingly anarchic, almost joyfully queer (although I suppose that’s not a word that would have been welcomed at the time), aesthetic that makes it still very compelling and watchable even as it must be now almost 40 years since its premiere. That said, it’s all very much of its time, a vision of post-apocalyptic England in a time of deprivation and uncertainty for which one can draw certain parallels, but a lot of which seems very much bound up in an era of political change. Jarman’s spirit is art school to the core, which made his film unpopular with the art school-bred punks (as Tony Rayns points out in a bonus feature documentary on its making), who preferred trying to come across as something more akin to brazen oiks. However, whatever Jarman’s own political take on things was, this is a still a bright, playful and inclusive vision of the end of days.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Derek Jarman | Writers Jarman and Christopher Hobbs | Cinematographer Peter Middleton | Starring Jenny Runacre, Jordan, Nell Campbell, Toyah Willcox | Length 103 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 January 2018

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Criterion Sunday 190: Kumonosu-jo (Throne of Blood, 1957)

The most striking aspect of this (very loose) adaptation of Shakespeare is the mist that swirls about the characters, especially at the start as they ride about, lost, in “Cobweb Forest”, and again at the end with its strange uncanny trees. The costume design, too, is richly detailed, as Kurosawa transposes the story to feudal Japan, with a number of competing warlords seeking to usurp one another’s power and thus Shakespeare’s story doesn’t seem out of place at all, even within Kurosawa’s own oeuvre. Toshiro Mifune has never been more expressive in his facial acting — perhaps too much so at times — and the persistent sense of imminent danger, as well as those atmospheric effects, remain the finest achievements of this adaptation.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni (based on the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare) | Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, Takashi Shimura | Length 110 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 January 2018 (and years earlier on TV)

May 2018 Film Roundup

Nearing the mid-year point in my 2018 challenge to watch an unseen film (something new, or new to you) every day, May is the second month in my sub-challenge to watch more than 50% films directed by women (as it’s a month with a woman’s name… please keep up). Again, I’m still posting notes on all of them over at Letterboxd, but a round-up is required. Turns out that as the sun and warmth has returned slowly to Britain, I’ve been watching fewer films, so closer to 30 than 50 this month, and far more short films.

Top 5 New Films (on their first release in the UK)

The Breadwinner (2017, dir. Nora Twomey)
The Dreamed Path (2016, dir. Angela Schanelec)
Waru (2017, dir. various Maori woman directors)
Raazi (2018, dir. Meghna Gulzar)
Tully (2017, dir. Jason Reitman)

Three of these films were given a release at cinemas; some other films that came out in May that I’d already seen include Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, which I’d probably have put on this list if it were new to me, although it took my second viewing to get into it fully, so perhaps it’s a grower. The Indian film turned out to much stronger than I usually expect of Bollywood features.

The German film was given a premiere at Genesis Cinema but otherwise was just on streaming service Mubi. However, after seeing a number of other Angela Schanelec films this past few months thanks to Mubi, I found it to be an enigmatic and mysterious film with what I perceived to be hidden depths that may reveal themselves if I were to watch it again.

Finally, there’s Waru which (as yet) has had no UK release in any form, but my mum sent me the DVD. It’s a series of short films all based around the same fictional premise (the death of a young child) on a marae. Given the format, some are better than others, but on the whole it’s a strong piece.

Top 10 Old Films (but new to me)

A Tale of the Wind (1988, dir. Joris Ivens/Marceline Loridan)
The World (2004, dir. Jia Zhangke)
As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000, dir. Jonas Mekas)
24 City (2008, dir. Jia Zhangke)
The Holy Girl (2004, dir. Lucrecia Martel)
Urban Rashomon (2013, dir. Khalik Allah)
Peppermint Soda (1977, dir. Diane Kurys)
The East Wind (El Chergui) (1975, dir. Moumen Smihi)
There’s Always Tomorrow (1956, dir. Douglas Sirk)
Together (1956, dir. Lorenza Mazzetti)

None of these are Criterion films. Instead, there are a few shorter pieces I caught up on to fill my daily gap (the Allah film is on YouTube, as is the Mazzetti, although it was on the BFI’s “Free Cinema” set of British new wave films and documentaries of the 1950s). As Lucrecia Martel’s latest was out, I thought I should go see a retrospective screening of one of her earlier films, the wonderful (and possibly underrated by me) The Holy Girl. Another celluloid screening was the rare Moumen Smihi film, a Moroccan filmmaker whose work isn’t much shown or available.

Two of the others were on Mubi (the almost-5hr long Jonas Mekas assemblage and the Sirk film, as part of a season of his work). Finally there were some I rented, including the Ivens film I put up the top, several Jia films (of which I think The World is my favourite, dealing with alienation in the modern world), and the Diane Kurys period film, a slightly sentimental but lovely coming of age set in 60s Paris.

Criterion Sunday 189: Lo sceicco bianco (The White Sheik, 1952)

Early Fellini is probably the best Fellini, in my opinion, free of the baroque stylisation he would later fall victim to. That said, I find it difficult to imagine this as an Antonioni film (he was one of the writers of the original story, if not the screenplay), because it’s so filled with the extra touches Fellini would throw in, all light and music and movement and mugging for the camera. The lead actor is particularly good (Leopoldo Trieste), the one who plays the hapless husband making excuses for his star-struck wife, and it wasn’t until watching a making-of featurette that I realised this wasn’t a satire on film, but rather a satire on a very specific type of literature in which narratives were photographed for magazines, hence why I was confused about the nature of the shoot. Anyway, it’s all very pleasing and silly really.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Federico Fellini | Writers Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano | Cinematographer Arturo Gallea | Starring Alberto Sordi, Leopoldo Trieste, Brunella Bovo, Giulietta Masina | Length 83 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 December 2017

Criterion Sunday 188: L’Amour en fuite (Love on the Run, 1979)

There are elements here to the last Antoine Doinel film that feel a little cobbled together, not least the extensive use of flashback clips to the previous films. However, what is actually shot for this film — primarily scenes involving Antoine divorcing his wife Christine, and reconnecting with the lovely Marie-France Pisier as Colette (looking younger somehow than in the 1962 clips from Antoine et Colette) — all looks great, with some gloriously-lit frontally framed cinematography, and Truffaut has brought some new collaborators (including Pisier) on board as co-screenwriters. That aside, it does also try perhaps a little hard to wrap things up with Doinel’s new love interest, Sabine. It doesn’t outstay its welcome, in any case.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut | Writers François Truffaut, Marie-France Pisier, Jean Aurel and Suzanne Schiffman | Cinematographer Néstor Almendros | Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claude Jade, Marie-France Pisier, Dorothée | Length 94 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 December 2017

Criterion Sunday 187: Domicile conjugal (Bed and Board, 1970)

A couple of years after Stolen Kisses, Léaud’s Doinel character is (somewhat) settled down, married to Christine and expecting a child, but he retains the comic insouciance and desperate inability to hold down a job that marks the character in the previous film (the earlier ones were more about his adolescence). There’s a sadness to his character now, as his age advances and he still dallies around in affairs (including with a Japanese women, which at least has the saving grace that I don’t have to lean too heavily on the ‘it was a film of its era’ excuse that’s so often required for such subject matters), and Truffaut livens it up with little visual gags like having Tati’s Monsieur Hulot character get on a metro train at one point. Léaud certainly is starting to become the character that he’s so recognisable as from much of his 70s and 80s work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut | Writers François Truffaut, Claude de Givray and Bernard Revon | Cinematographer Nestor Almendros | Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claude Jade, Hiroko Berghauer | Length 100 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 December 2017

Criterion Sunday 186: Baisers volés (Stolen Kisses, 1968)

In some ways, this film may be my favourite of the Antoine Doinel series Truffaut and Léaud made over 20 years between 1959 and 1979 (though in others, it’s still his debut, The 400 Blows). It returns to the character as a young 20-something beginning his first adult relationship with Christine (with Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical tendencies apparently extending to the actor who played Christine, Claude Jade). That said, like the subsequent films in the series, it remains broadly comic, with Doinel’s character being easily distracted by women — most notably Delphine Seyrig as Fabienne, a shopkeeper’s wife — and unable to hold down a job — he meets Fabienne through a client at a private detective agency where he works, who wants to know why everyone hates him. It’s the film that probably most excoriates Doinel’s romantic tendency and fecklessness, and there’s a beautifully-judged extended scene in front of a mirror where he just says the central characters’ names repeatedly.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut | Writers François Truffaut, Claude de Givray and Bernard Revon | Cinematographer Denys Clerval | Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claude Jade, Delphine Seyrig, Michael Lonsdale | Length 91 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 December 2017

Criterion Sunday 185: “The Adventures of Antoine Doinel”

This box set brings together all of Truffaut’s films starring the fictional character Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud). His first in the series is also Truffaut’s debut feature, The 400 Blows (1959), released as Criterion spine number 5. The others are collected in this set: Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970) and Love on the Run (1979).

Among the many extras on the set is Antoine and Colette (1962), a short film originally part of an anthology, which offers the first sequel of sorts for the Doinel character, introducing Marie-France Pisier as his youthful crush Colette. It’s in widescreen black-and-white and still retains that link to the early Paris-street-bound energy of the nouvelle vague filmmakers, while cannily setting up Doinel’s later character as a feckless and unreliable lover that Truffaut and Léaud would pursue for the next 17 years.

Criterion Sunday 184: “By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume One” (1954-2001)

This compendium of short films by the American experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage spans the range of his life, from his earliest works to after his diagnosis with the cancer which would claim his life in 2003. It was joined by a second volume some years later (as spine numbers 517 and 518), meaning this early instalment was retrospectively retitled as “Volume One” at that time. I present thoughts on some of the films below.

Desistfilm (1954) is my introduction to Brakhage’s work, like some kind of hepped-up beatnik film about a house party set to a hard-edged droning soundtrack, as people’s relationships break down. Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959) takes glimpses of early married life, but edits them together with fades to black in flickering light and comes across as nothing so much as a Lynchian dystopia of nightmares, with negative-image graphic sex interpolated. It doesn’t exactly paint a pleasant portrait of marriage.

Brakhage’s most famous work, though, probably remains Dog Star Man, made in four parts with a prelude (so: five separate short films). As a whole it’s a fevered rush of images, or at least that’s the sense that Part IV conjures, though the Prelude sets up the basic imagery of the title, where the “man” is both Brakhage himself, and also his newborn baby, and the “star” seems more like a solar plexus of body imagery and film manipulation effects. It’s all quite affecting in its way, but perplexing too. Part I has the most sustained sense of narrative, as Brakhage journeys futilely up (or along, depending on the camera angle) a snowy slope like a deranged Sisyphean hunter figure with his dog. Part II introduces the baby imagery more fully, with this and the remaining parts being relatively shorter.

Possibly the most distinctive film, both integrated into his oeuvre but also standing apart by virtue of its extreme subject matter, is The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971). I don’t really know how to ‘rate’ this, but for all that the subject matter may be gruesome (footage taken during actual autopsies), I found it difficult to take my eyes off the screen, because to do so would seem somehow disrespectful to what Brakhage is filming here: the very substance of physical being itself. I suppose at a metaphorical level this could be construed as another film about the technical aspects of filmmaking — editing and deconstructing — but yet it’s really, really not: it’s the literalisation of some kind of metaphysical consciousness that doesn’t simply reduce once-living beings to cadavers, but finds some kind of transcendent purity in our essential form. This is supported by the formal means Brakhage uses, the occasionally occluded camera angles, the complete lack of sound, the structure moving us gently from coroners measuring things into the more macabre material. I wouldn’t call it disturbing exactly, though not everyone would wish to sit through it, but it certainly makes all other filmed images seem a little unnecessary.

At the other end of the spectrum of life, Window Water Baby Moving (1959) films Brakhage’s wife giving birth to their baby daughter (or is that a spoiler?). It has a lyrical quality to it, to the colours and textures, that carries it through the bloody and painful aspects of what’s taking place, seeming to communicate at least something of what’s special to it. From the same year, Cat’s Cradle is riven with blood red textures, of sensuality perhaps or something more eerie… and a cat. Family figures in a later film, Kindering (1987), in which odd contorted images of children playing in their backyard create a strange, slightly creepy effect. With I… Dreaming (1988), he again hints at a dark loneliness, something that seems to have been taken up by Lynch when I think about the spaces of void (or I believe that’s the word he writes most often over his film here), but it doesn’t entirely work for me.

There are a few films which continue to explore the textures of filmed matter. In Mothlight (1963), the light of the camera passes directly through the biological material of a moth and its world, creating patterns and textures directly on the film. Returning to similar ideas, The Garden of Earthly Delights uses plant ephemera, and sort of achieves something of the same effect.

Sometimes the experimentalism of Brakhage’s films comes from the sense of the editing, but in The Wold Shadow (1972), it feels more like he’s experimenting with effects in the camera, or using a static image of trees in a forest as a base for improvisation on the theme of colour and light. It’s fascinating. More perplexing is The Stars Are Beautiful (1981), in which Brakhage recounts various creation myths relating to the stars, while his children (I am guessing) clip a chicken’s wings. I guess those birds won’t be getting anywhere near the stars.

There are also a large number of colour films, painted and collaged, but the first on the set (1987’s The Dante Quartet) isn’t my favourite. However, it has (unsurprisingly, Dante-esque) headings to its sections. Somewhat a precursor to that is Night Music (1986), thirty seconds of colour, big and bold. Meanwhile, the colours just seem a little more dissipated in Glaze of Cathexis (1990), though it’s the film of his which sounds most like the name of a black metal band (yes, it turns out someone has taken it for such), while Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1990) sounds like the title of that band’s first album. Once again, it does some lovely things with colour and light, as you’d expect. A few years later, Study in Color and Black and White (1993) is more dark than colour, more black than white.

Having watched a series of Brakhage’s short experiments with light and colour hand-painted directly onto film, the 10+ minute running length of Untitled (For Marilyn) (1992) suggests it might somehow be wearyingly epic by comparison, and yet this ended up being the one I most loved (alongside Lovesong). It has the textures, the colours, the feeling. It’s the whole package, and is dedicated to his wife. Black Ice (1994) is another of his films which, when watched alongside some sludgy doomy metal (as I was doing, given most of these films are silent), starts to feel like a crack in the cosmos, through which snippets of light and colour seem to make their way. Cosmic shapes appear in Stellar (1993) as well, extensions of Brakhage’s work with painting on film, and perhaps these are just suggested by the title, but there is a sort of harmony of the spheres to it all.

In Crack Glass Eulogy (1991), after a long run of his colour and light films, seeing filmed images seems rather a novelty. It has a spare, haunting, elegiac quality, like night vision, like surveillance. By the end of the decade, though, in The Dark Tower (1999), the darkness threatens to overwhelm everything else, perhaps suggestive of his failing vision. Likewise Comingled Containers (1996, which Criterion’s sleeve notes correct to “commingled”) feels like a blend of photography (water imagery) and the filmmaker’s manipulations of light and colour in a way that is rather more productive than some of Brakhage’s other works, but with a similar undertow of darkness.

The final film on the set is the most recent one, Lovesong (2001), made only a couple of years before Brakhage’s death from cancer. What I like most about this film is that it feels like a pure expression of paint on film. It seems so fresh, wet and glistening on the surface of the celluloid. It’s a film that has hundreds if not thousands of individual artworks, any one of which could be framed, but together seem beautiful and mysterious, like so much of Brakhage’s work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection || Director/Cinematography Stan Brakhage || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, over Sunday 25 February, 4 March and 11 March 2018

Desistfilm (1954) | Length 7 minutes
Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959) | Length 11 minutes
Dog Star Man (1961-64) | Length 75 minutes [1001 Films]

The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971) | Length 32 minutes [Rosenbaum 1000]

Cat’s Cradle (1959) | Length 7 minutes
Window Water Baby Moving (1959) | Length 13 minutes
Mothlight (1963) | Length 4 minutes
Eye Myth (1967) | Length 1 minute
The Wold Shadow (1972) | Length 3 minutes
The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981) | Length 2 minutes

The Stars Are Beautiful (1974) | Length 19 minutes

Kindering (1987) | Length 3 minutes
I… Dreaming (1988) | Length 7 minutes
The Dante Quartet (1989) | Length 7 minutes
Night Music (1986) | Length 1 minute
Rage Net (1988) | Length 1 minute

Glaze of Cathexis (1990) | Length 3 minutes

Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1990) | Length 9 minutes

Untitled (For Marilyn) (1992) | Length 11 minutes

Black Ice (1994) | Length 2 minutes
Study in Color and Black and White (1993) | Length 2 minutes
Stellar (1993) | Length 3 minutes
Crack Glass Eulogy (1991) | Length 7 minutes
The Dark Tower (1999) | Length 3 minutes
Comingled Containers (1996) | Length 3 minutes

Lovesong (2001) | Length 11 minutes

April 2018 Film Roundup

My 2018 challenge to watch an unseen film (something new or new to you) every day proceeds apace, and April sees the first of three months in which I’ve dedicated myself to watching at least 50% films directed by women (for these are all months with women’s names, or at least that’s my tenuous thematic connection). I watched 50 films this month, not counting short films, and I managed 27 directed (or co-directed) by women, although I am (perhaps cheekily) including a trans filmmaker who as far as I know doesn’t identify as either.

Top 5 New Films (on their first release in the UK)

Western (2017, dir. Valeska Grisebach)
Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (2017, dir. Mouly Surya)
Wonderstruck (2017, dir. Todd Haynes)
Even When I Fall (2017, dir. Kate McLarnon/Sky Neal)
Isle of Dogs (2018, dir. Wes Anderson)

In a rare top five for me so far, all of these films were given a cinema release during April, even if Marlina was a very small and targeted release, which in London meant only a handful of screenings. One of them was at the East End Film Festival, at the wonderful Genesis Cinema, and it was great both to see the film — a western in form, albeit set in Indonesia, with a woman seeking vengeance — and to hear the young woman director talking about its making afterwards.

My top place is another pseudo-western, one that even has that as its title, although it’s set in Bulgaria amongst a group of German workers. It’s another in a long lineage of films about masculinity and about codes of manly behaviour as seen by a woman (think Chevalier or Beau travail, the latter of which I caught up with a few days ago for about the fifth time, and which I still esteem as one of the best films ever).

The documentary in fourth place is about young Nepali women more or less abducted from their poor families at childhood into rural Indian travelling circuses, and for a film about human child trafficking, it has charismatic central performers, it depicts an arc of lived experience which moves towards a more hopeful resolution, and it has a keen cinematic eye for a good shot.

The other two films are relatively big budget and given plenty of fanfare, even if the Todd Haynes piece was (in my opinion) rather unjustly neglected as a minor work, but I suppose that was always likely to be the case with any follow-up to Carol.

Top 10 Old Films (but new to me)

Repast (1951, dir. Mikio Naruse)
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960, dir. Karel Reisz)
Twenty-Four Eyes (1954, dir. Keisuke Kinoshita)
Marseille (2004, dir. Angela Schanelec)
Winter Light (1963, dir. Ingmar Bergman)
Something Must Break (2014, dir. Ester Martin Bergsmark)
Battles (2015, dir. Isabel Tollenaere)
All I Desire (1953, dir. Douglas Sirk)
Canyon Passage (1946, dir. Jacques Tourneur)
Documenteur (1981, dir. Agnes Varda)

Rarely, only one of these films comes from the Criterion Sunday project (that’s the Bergman film), for we’ve had quite a run of films I’d either seen before (by Fassbinder) or films that are just too attenuated to hold my interest (which accounts for the rest of the Bergmans, an extensive documentary about him, and a rather wacky Shohei Imamura). Of course, my top place is a Naruse film that, like all his work, should feature in that collection but somehow doesn’t, but it’s wonderful as ever, with a nimble touch in dealing with an unhappy marriage as lived in a society very rigid in its etiquette and codes of public conduct.

Two more come from cinema screenings: the Reisz was part of a ‘Woodfall Films’ season at the BFI to which a friend took me along, a wonderful slice of working-class Northern life in which Albert Finney plays a rather annoying lad; while the Kinoshita film was presented by the Japan Foundation, and while it may have been projected from a DVD, it was still affecting to see it (and I will be returning to it again in many years for the Criterion project).

Several others come from the Mubi streaming service, not least a season of Angela Schanelec films, of which Marseille is my clear favourite, though they all share a particular interest in narratives which seem to come across their subjects rather by chance, and elliptical editing strategies. Another of their seasons (of women filmmakers), provided Battles, a haunting, poetic documentary about the legacies of 20th century warfare in the European built environment, while there were also a number of Varda films (even if I caught up with Documenteur on DVD after it had left Mubi; it’s another of her LA-set films, a light blend of documentary and fiction modes). Finally, Mubi provided a number of mid-century period films: the high melodrama of the Sirk film, and the glorious Western beauty of the Tourneur.

Rounding out my list is a film about trans and gender non-conforming identities via the Swedish film Something Must Break written and directed by a trans artist, which I ordered on DVD because it was cheap and I’d seen some good notices for it. It shares some DNA with A Fantastic Woman, but seems somehow less exploitative, and has another fantastic performance at its heart.