Criterion Sunday 550: The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

I suppose if there’s a theme to BBS movies, the titles collected by Criterion in the box set “America Lost and Found”, then it’s a sense of the crumbling of the American Dream, or at least that peculiarly mid-20th century vision of it. I mean, it’s certainly deserved, but what these films do is shine a light on confused white men in what should be bastions of that Dream wondering what happened, and that’s no less the case with Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern here, as brothers David and Jason. Jason has designs on Atlantic City, but keeps getting into trouble, and when David comes into town it’s largely to survey its noticeable decline. The film feels a bit unfocused at times, but then again so does American society, and the more I think about what Rafelson has put on the screen, the greater fondness I have for this rambling and at times surreal film (sequences of the two on horses on the beach make the Criterion release’s cover art, while elsewhere we have Nicholson compering an audience-less Miss America pageant, amongst other little flourishes). While watching it, I wasn’t quite sure what it all added up to, but in retrospect that may be the point: nothing quite adds up, because this is a story and a society destined to fall apart. The title explicitly anchors it in capitalism, referring to the original Monopoly board (complete with its misspelling of Marven Gardens), and this is a city that has sadly foundered on the promise of a dazzling future, just like these characters, just like all the characters in the BBS movies (whether Five Easy Pieces, Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show or even the Monkees in Head).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bob Rafelson; Writer Jacob Brackman (based on a story by Brackman and Rafelson); Cinematographer László Kovács; Starring Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Ellen Burstyn, Benjamin “Scatman” Crothers, Julia Anne Robinson; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 3 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 549: The Last Picture Show (1971)

A classic, if not the defining, film of the sad people in a sad small town feeling sad at the fleetingness of all things and at their sad, uneventful futures in the dead end of the American Dream genre, which to be fair is a reasonably well-worn one. But I’d not seen this film before, and director Peter Bogdanovich is sensible to keep his focus on the actors and on Larry McMurtry’s script (based on his own youthful experiences I gather, and shot in the small Texas town he grew up in). All these different actors, whether new youthful faces like Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd and Timothy Bottoms (and even Randy Quaid) all hit their marks perfectly, but in a sense this is even more a film for Eileen Brennan and Ellen Burstyn and Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson, as the older generation who have clearly already lived the lives these teenage kids are going through and who convey an immense amount of pathos. The script is certainly on point with its metaphors, but it wouldn’t matter much were it not for the tightly controlled performances of the leads, underscored by the monochrome cinematography and crumbling small town set design.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Peter Bogdanovich; Writers Larry McMurtry and Bogdanovich (based on McMurtry’s novel); Cinematographer Robert Surtees; Starring Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, Ben Johnson, Eileen Brennan; Length 126 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 2 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 546: Five Easy Pieces (1970)

As a seminal film in the ‘New American cinema’ movement, moving away from the Hollywood studio system, and a key piece in Jack Nicholson’s filmography, I must say that I like but don’t love Five Easy Pieces. It tells the story of Bobby Dupea, a man who seems pretty desperate to get away from himself, from his well-educated upper-class (for America) background, a world of conservatories and piano prodigies at a youthful age (which is what Bobby once was). Quite what he’s looking for is the drama of the film, though: some kind of pure and authentic expression of being American, perhaps, though most of the time it seems like he’s just running with no clear goal, lashing out at those who love him and constantly cheating on his girlfriend (Karen Black). It’s a great performance from Nicholson, but it’s not an easy one to love, given how rough around the edges he is, though it feels somehow quintessentially American. I can certainly understand how it hooks people in, but watching it I feel more like one of the pseuds that Bobby is so angry at all the time.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bob Rafelson; Writers Carole Eastman [as “Adrien Joyce”] and Rafelson; Cinematographer László Kovács; Starring Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Susan Anspach; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 29 June 2022.

Criterion Sunday 545: Easy Rider (1969)

I guess this film is a bit like Kerouac or any of those other self-styled poets of the American road, as in it’s something that has been influential and has attracted plenty of love, but is also equally reviled by those who just find it bloated and self-serving. To be fair, these are mostly straw man arguments to a certain extent; aside from a few snide comments I’ve seen, I’m just assuming the existence of this film’s detractors, because my mind itself is pulled in two directions. On the one hand, these characters are like empty ciphers for some metaphorical telling of the American Dream/Nightmare, drugged-up hipsters (though the more I see of the 1960s counterculture, the more segments of it feel more like libertarian neo-conservatism than real progressive belief) on a road journey that self-knowingly takes in all the contradictions of city vs urban life, hippies and drop-outs vs those on a demented vision quest, and everyone in between. You don’t really learn very much, is what I’m saying, because there’s a lot of posturing and smugness… and yet, on the other hand, there’s something a little bit gorgeous about this evocation of the road (probably in part thanks to cinematographer László Kovács), compelling in its nihilism perhaps, but I like the music and I enjoy the ride, even if I don’t always particularly like the company.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Dennis Hopper; Writers Peter Fonda, Hopper and Terry Southern; Cinematographer László Kovács; Starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Monday 18 December 2000 (and more recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Sunday 26 June 2022).

Global Cinema 36: China – Embrace Again (2021)

Well, I’ve reached the largest country in the world (by population), and it’s hardly a slouch cinematically either. The idea of trying distill a country’s history and geography into a paragraph is ridiculous enough under usual circumstances, but China merits more than most in this respect so this will be very selective. For the film choice, though — eschewing famous names from over a century of cinematic artistry — I’ve gone with a popular film from late last year (released here in January) which deals with perhaps the most significant global event of this decade, and one inextricably linked with China.


Flag - ChinaPeople’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国 Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó)
population 1,412,600,000 | capital Beijing (北京市) (19.2m) | largest cities Shanghai (24.3m), Beijing, Guangzhou (13.9m), Shenzhen (13.4m), Tianjin (11.8m) | area 9,596,961 km2 | religion none/folk (75%), Buddhism (18%), Christianity (5%) | official language Standard Chinese aka Mandarin (现代标准汉语) | major ethnicity Han Chinese (91%) | currency Renminbi (元) [RMB] | internet .cn

Aside from being the world’s most populous country, it also shares the second most land borders (14, after Russia), has five time zones (and a huge variation in climate and topography) and in Shanghai has the largest city in the world (though Tokyo and Delhi come out larger when you include wider metropolitan areas); it’s also one the world’s earliest civilisations so there’s plenty of history to cover too. The name used in the west can be traced back to Persian and ultimately a Sanskrit word used in ancient India and appears in English by the 16th century; the shortened Chinese word Zhongguo means “central state”. Archaeological evidence for hominids stretched back 2.25 million years, with early Homo erectus “Peking Man” dating to ~700,000 years ago. Writing began around the seventh millennium BCE and the earliest historical dynasty (the Xia) to around 2100 BCE, though the Shang (following in the 17th century) are the first attested in contemporary records. The imperial system began with the Qin in 221 BCE followed by the Han, whose dominance is reflected in the ethnic name for native Chinese. The territory was expanded in this period, but further fragmentation occurred after their fall, reunited somewhat by the Sui in the 6th century, followed by a cultural renaissance under the Tang and Song dynasties. Military weakness was exploited by the Mongol empire, who established the Yuan dynasty, overthrown by the Ming in the 14th century, another golden age of culture and economy. The final dynasty was the Manchu-led (northern Chinese) Qing, which fell to the Xinhai Revolution of 1911-12 that established the Republic of China under Sun Yat-sen of the Kuomintang (KMT), and was stabilised somewhat by Chiang Kai-shek. The Communist People’s Liberation Army fought a Civil War in the 1920s and again in the 1940s, gaining power in 1949 under Mao Zedong and pushing the KMT to Taiwan. Social reform programmes like The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution created upheaval and internal strife, blamed on the Maoist Gang of Four. The country was stabilised again under Deng Xiaoping, moving the country towards a mixed economy with an increasingly open market. The current one-party state has a President (with no term limit) elected by the National People’s Congress.

Introduced to the country in 1896, the first native cinematic production was in 1905, at a time when the industry was centred in Shanghai. This industry was severely curtailed by the Japanese invasion in 1937, with many filmmakers moving to Hong Kong and Chungking amongst other places. A new golden age was inaugurated by films like Spring in a Small Town (1948), though the Cultural Revolution severely restricted the industry and it wasn’t until the 1980s that a new generation of filmmakers emerged, notably the “Fifth Generation” of Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, who were succeeded in the 1990s by filmmakers working outside the mainstream, though there’s still a large popular state-sanctioned cinema including films like Mermaid (2016).


穿过寒冬拥抱你 Chuanguo Handong Yongbao Nillende (Embrace Again, 2021)

It’s interesting that there hasn’t really been any kind of big budget film from Hollywood that reckons with the current pandemic. I don’t doubt it will happen in time, but so far we’ve just been told audiences wouldn’t want to see that. Well, here’s one from China, set almost exactly two years ago in Wuhan, and it’s a multi-strand narrative of various people on the frontlines, whether doctors and nurses or delivery drivers and restaurant owners, though let’s be clear: this stops some way short of any kind of documentary purpose. It’s sweetly sentimental to a fault, but it’s a film that’s as much about some of the strange kinships and communities that developed out of the pandemic and lockdown, as people who wouldn’t ordinarily meet come into contact. One the leads is Jia Ling, the director/star of last year’s big hit Hi, Mom, and she again radiates warmth, as indeed do many of the actors, having to convey a lot even while wearing face masks for half of the film (as indeed they should). Still, I’ve never before been so attentive as to when characters in a film aren’t wearing their masks or are handling or fitting them incorrectly, so I’m surprised some of them make it through. Along the way there is love and, of course, there is loss — an extended stretch of the movie towards the end is basically just an old-fashioned tearjerker, though at least not everyone you think might die actually dies (and that’s all I’ll say of that) — but mostly this is a film about the resilience of a city (and by extension a country, but don’t tell me Hollywood doesn’t also do propaganda).

Chuanguo Handong Yongbao Nillende (Embrace Again, 2021)CREDITS
Director Xiaolu Xue 薛晓路; Writers Xue, Liu Qing 柳青, Zhang Bolei 张铂雷, Hao Zhe 郝哲 and Yue Wang 王越; Starring Huang Bo 黄渤, Jia Ling 贾玲, Zhu Yilong 朱一龙, Xu Fan 徐帆; Length 125 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 8 January 2022.

Criterion Sunday 544: Head (1968)

If one of the best-known aspects about Bob Rafelson’s debut as a director — and the first (and last) outing of manufactured music group The Monkees onto film — is that it was a massive commercial flop, that’s also probably the least interesting thing about it. After all, being a failure is sort of built into its very genetic code: it was designed to be a wholesale razing of The Monkees’ image, perhaps to allow them to go onto other things. However, it’s not like it’s designed to be bad, it’s just so scattershot and weird as to be basically unwatchable in a strictly narrative sense. But it’s certainly not lacking in interest either. Some of it remains very much of its era, and some of the ways it interrogates contemporary culture are less successful than others (just showing footage of an execution from the Vietnam War alongside screaming fans at a Monkees gig seem a little bit simplistic). But Rafelson and company — including co-screenwriter/producer Jack Nicholson — are throwing so much at the screen that at least some of it still maintains the power to perplex and astonish as it does to cause concern. It’s a series of setpieces and ideas that probably seemed more fully-formed when the makers were on acid (which is both evident and also documented), but still manages to be silly and serious in almost equal measures, a predecessor to what Adam McKay does now but if it were done to challenge rather than entertain the audience.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • One extra is a recent interview with director/co-writer Bob Rafelson, who had helped to create The Monkees as a TV show (and thereby a band), who is lucid and very entertaining talking about the genesis of this film and how things worked out for everyone. It’s almost half an hour, but an entertaining one.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bob Rafelson; Writers Rafelson and Jack Nicholson; Cinematographer Michel Hugo; Starring The Monkees (Peter Tork, David Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith); Length 85 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 11 June 2022.

Criterion Sunday 543: Modern Times (1936)

I am, if I’m being realistic, more than halfway through my life, which for someone who watches as many films as I do, is late to be getting into Charlie Chaplin. Of his features, I’ve only seen A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), which is probably not considered the classic way to start (his last film, although it’s certainly interesting for its era). But Modern Times holds up: a lot of its critiques of workplace relations and management pressure hardly seem to have aged at all, even if some of the technology it imagines is rather fanciful. The comedy is focused mostly into those sequences with the machines — Chaplin’s Tramp on the assembly line, getting sucked into the cogs, and doing a variety of pratfalls around the factory. However, it does feel far more strongly as if Chaplin is interested in social commentary, as well as finding an emotional thread with his relationship with the similarly marginalised Paulette Goddard’s “Gamin” character (she’s also Chaplin’s real-life wife of the time, and though 20 years younger than him is at least in her 20s for a change, even if she’s playing a juvenile delinquent). Overall it has a clarity to its comedic setups that focuses attention on the mistreatment of labour and the fallout of the Depression on people in America, with an undercurrent of poverty and desperation that I think sharpens some of the satire. I think it will take me a little while to deepen my appreciation of Chaplin, though, and so I look forward to seeing more of his classics as my Criterion project goes on.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Charlie Chaplin; Cinematographers Ira H. Morgan and Roland Totheroh; Starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard; Length 87 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 12 June 2022.

Global Cinema 35: Chile – Beyond My Grandfather Allende (2015)

Chilean cinema has been through periods of strength over the years, and there have been some notable international talents that have flourished after early starts in Chile, like the prolific Raúl Ruiz and veteran documentarian Patricio Guzmán (who made the epic The Battle of Chile). Modern filmmaking has continued to flourish under a new vanguard of directors, both of features (like the excellent Too Late to Die Young by Dominga Sotomayor, or No by Pablo Larraín) and documentaries like the one covered below. This personal story should be viewed alongside a wider overview of the events of Allende’s overthrow (as in Guzmán’s epic three-part film mentioned above), but it gives a different perspective on such an important modern figure.


Flag - ChileRepublic of Chile (República de Chile)
population 17,574,000 | capital Santiago (5.4m) though the legislature is based in Valparaíso | largest cities Santiago, Valparaíso (804k), Concepción (666k), La Serena (296k), Antofagasta (285k) | area 756,096 km2 | religion Christianity (63%), none (36%) | official language Spanish (español chileno) | major ethnicity (estimates) white (64%), mestizos (35%), Amerindians (5%) | currency Chilean peso ($) [CLP] | internet .cl

The southernmost country in the world occupies a narrow stretch of land (64km at its narrowest) between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, covering a huge number variety of landscapes and climates, and controlling a number of island groups including Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and the Juan Fernández Islands. Its name is theorised to come variously from the name of a tribal chief via the Incas, or from an indigenous word meaning “ends of the earth” or the Mapuche for “where the land ends” or the Quechua for “cold”. There is evidence for some human presence in southern Chile 18,500 years ago, though more permanent settlements date back 10,000 years. The Incan empire briefly extended into the northern area of modern Chile, but the Mapuche in the south resisted successfully, ending with the Battle of the Maule in the late-15th century. Magellan was the first European to set foot in 1520, and more Spaniards (including Pizarro’s lieutenant Pedro de Valdivia, who founded Santiago) followed in the mid-16th century, annexing it for its fertile central valley. Mapuche insurrections (including one resulting in Valdivia’s death) persisted into the 17th century until the Spanish abolished slavery in 1683. Independence from Spain was proclaimed on 18 September 1810 (the date commemorated annually in its National Day); war followed, but a final victory over royalists thanks to Bernardo O’Higgins and José de San Martín came eight years later, though society remained largely unchanged. Territory expansion followed, entrenching landowner and rich financial interests, and it wasn’t until the 1920s that a reformist president was elected. Coups and instability followed for much of the rest of the century, most notably to depose Socialist Salvador Allende in 1973 with the help of the USA. The military leadership of Augusto Pinochet was not toppled until 1989 and democracy was restored, with an elected president having a term of four years.

The earliest film screening in Chile took place in 1902 and the first feature was made in 1910, though the industry struggled for much of the 20th century. A “New Chilean Cinema” developed in the late-60s under directors like Raúl Ruiz and Miguel Littín, but a slump took place during the Pinochet years. New directors like Pablo Larraín and Sebastián Lelio have emerged in recent years.


Allende, mi abuelo Allende (Beyond My Grandfather Allende, 2015)

This is a somewhat different proposition from most documentary films made by someone about their own family. It’s not that the family story is lacking in incident or drama: the filmmaker’s grandfather Salvador was the socialist president of Chile, deposed by military coup in 1973 and who committed suicide rather than be taken, and his family was an illustrious one which continues to be filled with politicians and nationally influential people. Rather, what marks it out is the way that nobody the filmmaker talks to, not her mother Isabel, nor aunt Carmen, nor grandmother (Salvador’s wife, “Tencha”, who died while the film was being made), nor even her cousins will open up about Salvador, called by his nickname “Chicho” throughout the film. Perhaps it’s his suicide (which turns out to have been how her other aunt and another family member departed), or the enormous emotional trauma his downfall had on all of them, but to have this emptiness at the heart of a story can be a difficult one to overcome, for the audience. I think the filmmaker Marcia handles it well, though, and from the documentary and filmic evidence, you get a little hint of how Chicho was in life (the film is less concerned with his political legacy), but throughout all of it there’s this sense of a story only half-told.

Allende, mi abuelo Allende (Beyond My Grandfather Allende, 2015)CREDITS
Director Marcia Tambutti Allende; Writers Allende, Paola Castillo, Bruni Burres and Valeria Vargas; Cinematographer David Bravo and Eduardo Cruz-Coke; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Saturday 19 May 2018.

Criterion Sunday 542: Antichrist (2009)

I know that Lars von Trier wants us to hate his movies, because he wants us to have that authentic visceral reaction to them, whether it be love or hate. That seems fairly clear both from his pronouncements as from the films themselves, and therefore I want to respond by saying I found his film — surely one of the films that most potently distils everything that he wants to assault the viewer with — as merely middling. However, I cannot lie: I disliked it a lot. Not that it wasn’t acted with great power by both Gainsbourg and Dafoe, who are pretty much the only humans we see for much of the film (aside from their infant son who dies in the prologue and whose death hangs over the entire psychodramatic dynamic that ensues). Not that it wasn’t filmed with customary elegance by Anthony Dod Mantle. Not that there weren’t elements that worked well and could be appreciated. But just that constant assault of images and ideas that serve no purpose other than to evoke grand emotions. Well, I’m glad people can embrace those and I don’t doubt that it’s all very intentionally done. I could dispassionately render a critique on its artistry. But I feel like a more honest response — and perhaps the one that Trier would prefer — is just: f*ck that guy. I didn’t hate his film, and maybe even one day I can come to it with understanding, but I don’t have to watch it again, and I’m glad about that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Lars von Trier; Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle; Starring Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 18 June 2022.

Criterion Sunday 541: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

If I were in a less generous mood I would see this as a noble failure, a strange blend of folk horror and exaggerated camp that leans far too heavily into its fairy tale register, and to be honest it does often come across as faintly absurd while it’s playing out. But I’m not feeling grumpy today and I think the very staginess of the undertaking is exactly right for what it’s trying to do, which is not to scare in a traditional sense, but to evoke a mythic sense of dread that is as much a part of the canon of fairy tale literature as it is part of 20th century film history. Needless to say it wasn’t exactly embraced on release and probably prevented its director Charles Laughton from ever making another film, but what he does here with his collaborators (both in the writing and especially the monochrome cinematography by Stanley Cortez) is to evoke a curiously timeless — partially because in some senses it remains accurate — portrait of America, with its fascination with guns, religion and children and the way these three elements combine.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are plenty of bonuses stretched over two Blu-ray discs, so it may take me a while to watch all of them, but I did look at the 15-minute piece on the BBC show Moving Pictures which has a few short interviews with various key cast members (Mitchum, Winters), some behind the scenes people like a producer and a set designer, as well as archival footage of Gish, speaking to the enduring power of the film sometime around its fortieth anniversary as well as the excellence of its director in bringing everything together.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Charles Laughton; Writer James Agee (based on the novel by Davis Grubb); Cinematographer Stanley Cortez; Starring Robert Mitchum, Billy Chapin, Lillian Gish, Shelley Winters, Sally Jane Bruce; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at the National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 6 June 2001 (also earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, July 1999 and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Monday 6 June 2022).