Criterion Sunday 265: Short Cuts (1993)

It’s strange the way memory works: I’ve read the Raymond Carver short stories this film is drawn from, and I’ve seen this film too, back in the 1990s. I was then (and probably still am) an enormous fan of Carver’s spare prose, and I remember some of those stories and the traumas within them — the two lads peeling off from their families to chase after some girls while on a picnic, or the guys out fishing who find a dead body, amongst others; they’re not exactly cheery tales, but rather exhume a certain fascination with everyday working class lives and the pathology of downtrodden men in particular. So it’s odd that I remember the film adaptation with such warmth, though perhaps I confused its technical qualities, and the careful emotional construction (with its cross-cutting that only heightened the onward rush of narrative revelation), with some kind of uplift to the story as a whole. No, this is bleak stuff really, even if it is compelling and wonderfully well-made. Almost all of these characters have trouble relating to one another — husbands with their wives (the wives have rather less trouble understanding their husbands), fathers with sons, groups of friends, and then of course there are business-client relationships (Lyle Lovett is not a happy baker).

To this extent, when there is a shared moment of understanding or emotional honesty — like Madeleine Stowe and Julianne Moore as sisters, laughing themselves silly at their respective a*hole partners (Tim Robbins as a humourless and adulterous cop, and Matthew Modine as a self-important surgeon), or Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin patching up their differences for what feels like the umpteenth time — it hits home that much more forcefully, and compensates a little for some of the darker interactions. Some characters can be empathetic in one scene, but boorish in the background of someone else’s, and there’s a constant fluidity to the way that identification moves throughout the film. And while at times it does feel a little dated — there’s a throughline of cynicism that feels very much of the 1990s, as is some of the class commentary — Altman never loses the compassion for any of his characters (though, okay, Chris Penn’s Jerry is very trying), and it never gets boring.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The chief extra is Luck, Trust & Ketchup: Robert Altman in Carver Country (1993, dir. John Dorr/Mike Kaplan), a fairly solid video-based 90 minute making-of documentary. There are sit-down interviews with the actors on the set about working with Altman, which veer from the bland pabulum to more in-depth discussions — Frances McDormand lays out Altman’s way of shooting master shots and the technical challenges of that, or Julianne Moore thoughtfully reflects on one key scene for her character. There’s plenty of footage of Altman on set, which gives you an idea of how he manages actors, and we see him making little changes or suggesting different ways of capturing a scene. There are also interviews with Carver’s widow (and the film’s screenwriter) about the process of adapting the stories and what exactly she sees as the continuities between Carver’s Pacific NW-set short stories and Altman’s LA film.
  • There are a couple of short minute-long or so additional scenes, as well as an alternate take for the big confrontation between MacDowell/Davison’s parents and Lovett’s baker.
  • Three of the songs which were penned for Annie Ross’s character are presented in audio demos, as sung by their original composer, Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), in his customary drawl.
  • Some years later Tim Robbins and Robert Altman discuss the film in a likeable half-hour piece for the Criterion release, sharing memories of the production and going over some of Altman’s influences and the way he shaped the project in collaboration with his actors.
  • There’s also some good context for the marketing of the film, including a huge number of suggested posters (some of which really betray their 90s roots), as well as the eventual teaser trailer, full trailer and six 30-second TV spots that emphasise different aspects of the production (including one which just drops the actors’ names, and two which heroically try to recount the storylines).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Altman; Writers Altman and Frank Barhydt (based on the short stories “Neighbors”, “They’re Not Your Husband”, “Vitamins”, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?”, “So Much Water So Close to Home”, “A Small, Good Thing”, “Jerry and Molly and Sam”, “Collectors”, “Tell the Women We’re Going” and the poem “Lemonade” by Raymond Carver); Cinematographer Walt Lloyd; Starring Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison, Julianne Moore, Anne Archer, Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Robbins, Frances McDormand, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Madeleine Stowe, Matthew Modine, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Penn, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Peter Gallagher, Jack Lemmon, Lyle Lovett; Length 188 minutes.

Seen at university library (laserdisc), Wellington, October 1998 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Monday 26 August 2019).

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Criterion Sunday 264: Dokument Fanny och Alexander (The Making of Fanny and Alexander, 1984)

What’s interesting about this “making of” documentary is that, rarely enough, it is actually what it says: it shows in great detail the actual making of the film. It’s not so much bothered about contextualising the production, about where it was made or how long the shoot was (though that sort of comes out in a roundabout way), nor even the preparation or the post-production. This is focused strictly on Bergman himself making the film, with his actors on the sets, with his DoP Sven Nykvist, and just in the flow of eliciting the performances and ensuring that the vision being created by the camera and the lighting matches his. In that sense it can be a little claustrophobic, because you’re just in these houses with him constantly, but it imparts a little sense of how engaged and focused he is on the task, and about some of what it means to be a director: it’s about getting the performances you want to see from your actors, and about having the right people around you to deal with the other stuff.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This feature was originally accorded its own spine number, but in the Blu-ray re-release of the box set, is essentially just one of the supplements. The others I mention on the page for the box set.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Arne Carlsson; Starring Ingmar Bergman; Length 110 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 19 August 2019.

Criterion Sunday 263: Fanny och Alexander [The Theatrical Version] (Fanny and Alexander, 1982)

Having seen this film for the first time a few weeks ago in its “TV Version”, I now watch the “Theatrical Version” — although the latter is really just the former cut in half (they’re both films) — and I have the sense of seeing some things for the first time. I suppose it’s just the necessarily more clipped way that things progress, but some of these moments just never really struck me so much when it played out in full. In either case, Bergman’s artistry as a filmmaker is fully evident, with long scenes filled with detail and artifice playing out almost effortlessly, though they must have taken a fair bit of staging and practice. However, the brevity brings its own rewards, and in some ways the little moments of the supernatural or hallucinatory — the way dead figures come to life in front of our young protagonists’ eyes, for example — seem to have more of a punch to them in the shortened version. In any case, this remains a film about Alexander primarily, a portrait of the artist as a young man if you will (for he is the Bergman stand-in). Every element is crafted with deep care, particularly the set design of the various family apartments and the austere parson’s lodgings. I had perhaps not expected to like this coming of age period costume drama as much as I did, but it’s a towering achievement.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a commentary on the film by Peter Cowie, but I’ve not listened to it yet.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Sven Nykvist; Starring Ewa Fröling, Jan Malmsjö, Allan Edwall, Bertil Guve, Erland Josephson, Jarl Kulle; Length 188 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 15 September 2019.

Criterion Sunday 262: Fanny och Alexander [The Television Version] (Fanny and Alexander, 1982)

I started watching this under the impression that, as a “television version” which is ostensibly split into four episodes, it would therefore be watchable in small chunks. However, do not be fooled, for despite its five act structure (plus a prologue and epilogue), and the separate credit roll at the end of each “episode”, this is essentially a single 312-minute film, so I ended up watching most of it in a single sitting.

There are different ways to use this kind of duration and Bergman focuses on the characters. There are essentially three households at the heart of this film: the Ekdahls (with Ewa Fröling as the key figure, Emilie), a rich theatre-owning family in whose company we start the film, as they throw a grand Christmas gathering; that of the austere Bishop Vergérus (Jan Malmsjö); and the Jewish moneylender Isak (Erland Josephson), who is more a passing background character for much of the film. The title may put the emphasis on Emilie’s two children, and their experiences guide the structure of the film (Bertil Guve’s Alexander is the character that director Ingmar Bergman identified with, and whose point of view we mostly adopt), but Emilie is the film’s linchpin.

Intended perhaps to be his swansong, this is a gloriously mounted production, which carefully contrasts the burnished colours, deep rich saturated reds, brocaded fabrics and warm lights of the Ekdahl household, with the gloomy bare prison-like atmosphere of the Bishop’s home, with his wan, dispirited serving women and authoritarian mother. In fact, generally Bergman is pretty savage with this man of the cloth, although religious belief runs throughout the film and is hardly all the kind of dour torture that the Bishop cleaves to, even if that’s the most “Bergmanesque” passage of the film. But it’s mostly a film about family and growing up, a warm remembrance of childhood and of a certain kind of cultured middle-class upbringing. The acting is all superb, too, with a vast roster of talent familiar from many other Bergman works.

But this remains very much a film, not a TV series.

[NB This version was released the year after the feature version, in 1983, although I would consider it an alternate cut of the same film, so I’m sticking with the original release year on the heading of this post.]

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are no extras on this disc, as they are all on a separate supplements disc.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Sven Nykvist; Starring Ewa Fröling, Jan Malmsjö, Allan Edwall, Bertil Guve, Erland Josephson, Jarl Kulle; Length 312 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 16 August 2019.

Criterion Sunday 261: “Fanny and Alexander Box Set”

Bergman intended this 1982 film as his final feature, and after a three-hour cut released to cinemas, he reworked it into the cut which here is called the “Television Version” but actually remains just a longer, more fully-realised feature film.

Chief among the supplementary materials is Bergman’s own Making of Fanny and Alexander (1984), which has its own spine number and therefore I’ll review separately, though in the Blu-ray release it sits on the ‘supplements’ disc.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • One of the documentaries commissioned for the Criterion release is Fanny & Alexander: A Bergman Tapestry (2004), a very solid 40 minute featurette which catches up with many of the key participants in the making of the film just over 20 years later, including the boy who plays the title role (Bertil Guve, now fully grown of course), as well as some producers, the art director, and a number of the actors (of whom all but Erland Josephson speak perfect English). They give a richer sense of working with Bergman, as well as the way the film was made, with a few additional insights into the filming and production of some of the scenes that don’t make it into Bergman’s contemporary The Making of Fanny and Alexander.
  • There is also Ingmar Bergman tar farväl av filmen (Ingmar Bergman Bids Farewell to Film, 1984), a straightforward Swedish television interview of Bergman, as he sits on a couch facing the interviewer and talks about the making of Fanny and Alexander. A number of the questions are attempting to elicit some autobiographical motivation, which Bergman fairly strenuously denies, while admitting there are elements of himself in many of the characters. He’s certainly not on board for the reading that the grand Christmas celebrations seen on film reflect something he likes, so he still on the whole comes across as a grump, albeit one with an at times impish smile. The one topic they don’t address is his bidding farewell to film, and given his subsequent output, I guess he didn’t.
  • There are also a number of image galleries, including pictures of Bergman on set with his actors and his DoP Sven Nykvist, probably his closest collaborator. There are also images of the costume sketches, set alongside how they appeared in the final film, plus a short video run through of the various set models (again, with the finished film for comparison).

Criterion Sunday 260: Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1960)

This is one of those precursors to any number of schlocky, gory horror movies of the coming decades (and indeed was first released with a similarly B-movie title in the States), but manages to be somehow elegant enough that Édith Scob in the more recent interview on the Criterion disc contends it is not a horror movie. (It is very much a horror movie.) But that assessment makes sense because it sits somewhere between older films about mad scientists performing experiments and the French policiers and thrillers of the 1950s (themselves staples of the Criterion catalogue). Of course, key to director Georges Franju’s vision of horror is that the scientist at the heart of this film, Dr Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), isn’t mad at all — he’s just driven by a love for his daughter Christiane (Scob), whom he has caused to be disfigured, in conjunction with a very loose sense of ethical responsibility. The horror then is really not in anything we see — though there are some brief gory and troubling images — but in the way it all seems so complacently self-evident to the doctor and his nurse accomplice (Alida Valli). It remains an elegant film about very inelegant people.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The chief extra is one of Franju’s short films, Le Sang des bêtes (Blood of the Beasts, 1949), which is undoubtedly a difficult film to watch, and one can only be thankful it’s in black-and-white. After all, it presents the work of a French abattoir contrasted with a small town idyll and the benign indifference of the people tasked with chopping up these living creatures. It’s a horror film of sorts but largely avoids editorialising.
  • There’s an 8 minute interview with Scob from 2013, in which she discusses the film and it making, and her place in it.
  • An odd little 5 minute French TV piece has Franju being interviewed about the ‘cinema of the fantastic’ by a man in a silly wig and a prominent chemistry set in the foreground — presumably as part of some kind of TV themed bit about mad scientists.
  • A 7 minute excerpt from a 1985 French TV documentary presents interviews with Boileau and Narcejac about their crime writing partnership, though they don’t specifically touch on this film.
  • Finally there are French and US trailers, the latter particularly interesting because it’s for the original release under the title The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus as a double-bill along with a creature feature called The Manster (he’s half man! half monster!).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Georges Franju; Writers Franju, Jean Redon, Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac and Claude Sautet (based on the novel by Redon); Cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan; Starring Pierre Brasseur, Édith Scob, Alida Valli; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 11 July 2019 (and originally on VHS at the university library, Wellington, July 1999).

Criterion Sunday 259: À ma sœur ! (aka Fat Girl, 2001)

It’s fair to say that, even from her very first film and certainly up until today, Catherine Breillat has been a rather troublesome and controversial figure, increasingly as much for her confrontational views as for her movies (for example, comments minimising the Weinstein allegations, and dismissing the #MeToo reckoning, though these appear to have been in the context of an ill-tempered run-in with Asia Argento). Indeed, Breillat doesn’t exactly fit very neatly into feminist critiques of film, or at least you get the sense that she’d certainly resist that kind of reading. For all that, she’s made some excoriating films, and none more so, I think, than À ma sœur! (released in the US as Fat Girl; apparently Breillat likes the English-language title better, but it certainly seems to change the focus of the film).

This is a work that for all its dark subject matter is really about sisterhood, and while this may suggest a sentimental point of view — and there are some lovely, supportive scenes between the two sisters Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) and Elena (Roxane Mesquida) — Breillat was of course never going to be content to leave it at that. Instead there are some almighty power plays going on between the two (and equally between the two sisters and their parents, who are fairly detached from their daughters’ emotional states). On a family holiday, Elena falls for a handsome older Italian law student, Fernando (Libero De Rienzo), while Anaïs looks on, pouring scorn on Elena’s gullibility (when she speaks up at all) and apparently fully cognisant of where it’s all leading. All of this unfolds in long sinuous takes, whose gliding grace only seems to intensify the emotion underpinning the relationships. When Fernando wants sex, we barely get a chance to look away from his disingenuous flattery and cajolement, alternately tender and piqued, until he gets his way. In the context of all this, the ending then seems to take the film in an even darker direction, albeit with a strangely defiant final freeze frame reminiscent of The 400 Blows — not that I’d anticipate Breillat following up with an entire series about Anaïs (as Truffaut did with his character), though one can but imagine where her life takes her at this point.

Sometimes Breillat’s dark imagination, the way she plays out these sexual power dynamics (often between young women and older men) can make her films feel unsatisfactory, but in this one she seems to find a way of bringing out the humanity underlying the nastiness. The film could be dismissed as exploitational or emotionally vampiric perhaps, but it never loses sight of the people at the heart of these characters, and their capacity for enduring and reconfiguring disappointment and trauma, at which both the leads excel.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a 5 minute behind the scenes making of featurette, which shows Breillat directing and shooting some scenes, along with a few brief interviews.
  • Two interviews with Breillat are included, one at the Berlin premiere, where she gets into some of the dramas of the film, and the other in which she discusses her working methods, the actors, and the alternative ending — of which there’s footage included.
  • The French and US trailers are included, which have much the same soundscape, though of course the French one includes dialogue from the film where the US one does not. The US trailer also does that thing of basically recapping the entire movie and even includes the final shot of the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Catherine Breillat; Cinematographer Yorgos Arvanitis Γιώργος Αρβανίτης; Starring Anaïs Reboux, Roxane Mesquida, Libero De Rienzo, Arsinée Khanjian Արսինէ Խանճեան; Length 86 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Monday 16 July 2001 (then later on VHS at home, Wellington, January 2003, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 10 July 2019).

Criterion Sunday 258: Tanner ’88 (1988)

A fictionalised account of a Democratic nominee for President contesting the primaries against the likes of Michael Dukakis (who would go on to actually win the Democratic nomination that year, if not the Presidency), Jesse Jackson and even Al Gore and Joe Biden (who are never seen, but their names come up once or twice). Michael Murphy (as Jack Tanner) has a sort of bland appeal that feels so familiar in US Presidential candidates, so he’s a good choice for this man who becomes very slightly radicalised during his campaign — we’re not talking Bulworth (1998) here, but there’s a striking sequence in Detroit where he talks to (presumably very real) local campaigners in what feels the closest to a documentary sequence in the whole mini-series (not a million miles from some of the political discussions in, say, Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom in making dramatic the everyday political discussions of ordinary people). Elsewhere there’s behind-the-scenes political plotting, including Tanner’s affair with the deputy manager of a rival’s campaign, his daughter Alex (Cynthia Nixon)’s college idealism clashing with her more conservative father, whose policies for the most part are in unemotional soundbites, and his hard-nosed campaign manager TJ (Pamela Reed) making calls and crunching numbers in fairly opaque ways, but they certainly come across dramatically. The general sense is to satirise the idea of politicians having any actual beliefs, an early broadside against the kind of media and image-heavy campaigning that has come to dominate the US election cycle. Altman’s familiar style, with a roving camera, plenty of zooms and overlapping dialogue is all in place and it feels a bit like a prelude to some of the multiple narratives he’d pursue in The Player and Short Cuts.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Each of the 11 episodes is prefaced by a minute or two of an in-character introduction filmed in 2004 (generally Murphy, but Reed and Nixon also show up), reflecting on the events of the previous episode. This was filmed at the time that Trudeau and Altman worked with many of the same actors on a follow-up mini-series Tanner on Tanner. That latter sequel isn’t on this set, but perhaps a future upgrade may include it?
  • There’s a 20 minute conversation between Garry Trudeau and Robert Altman from 2004, in which they discuss how the series came together and the way they shot the thing, as well as useful comments on the improvisations and working methods of some of the actors and political figures they got as cameos.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Altman; Creator/Writer Garry Trudeau; Cinematographer Jean Lépine; Starring Michael Murphy, Pamela Reed, Cynthia Nixon, Wendy Crewson; Length 353 minutes (in 11 episodes of c30 minutes each, although the first is a double episode).

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 August 2019.

Criterion Sunday 257: Secret Honor (1984)

One of many films attempting to understand the character of Nixon, this is based on a stage play and it certainly shows, given the film takes place entirely in a single room (Nixon’s study) and aside from archival clips and images, the only person we see on screen is Philip Baker Hall. It’s a bravura performance, the kind of thing that on stage would wow a crowd, but at times feels like overacting on film, but in a sense that’s intentional: the way the thoughts tumble out of Nixon’s mouth, often incomplete, jostling with one another to find clarity of expression; the mad dashes he takes around his study, ranting at pictures, staring down the camera, speaking into his tape recorder and addressing an off-screen editor. Altman’s camera fluidly captures all the digressions and frantic movements, opening up the space a little but still with the claustrophobia that you get from a single, heavily wood-panelled, setting. The script touches on a lot of the issues that motivated Nixon, and suggest a deeper, darker reality than the one seen in the media of the time, as shadowy cabals of men are alluded to as his backers, and his misdeeds appear to be more than what brought him down in the end. It’s a passionate performance, but as a film it feels rather like a footnote to the ongoing retelling of the legends of American Presidency.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a 22 minute interview with Philip Baker Hall discussing the project, his background in theatre and how that meant very little once he moved to LA, how the film kickstarted his acting career on film, but mostly how it was filmed and his work with Altman.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Altman; Writers Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone (based on their play); Cinematographer Pierre Mignot; Starring Philip Baker Hall; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 28 July 2019.

Criterion Sunday 256: A Constant Forge (2000)

An extensive and sprawling documentary about John Cassavetes, though really just about his films and filmmaking (there’s an all-too-brief mention of the cirrhosis that killed him in the end, but very few other personal details are offered). Indeed, much of the documentary focuses on clips from the five films in the Criterion box set, which I can only assume is due to rights issues (there’s a lot that’s great about Minnie and Moskowitz, and I’d have liked to have heard more about the studio movies or his last films in the 1980s), but all the same it does a good job of laying out his philosophy and practice. The structure appears to be along fairly oblique lines, cued up by somewhat pretentious quotes, and finished with a bit of verse, but it’s making for a case for Cassavetes as something quite unlike the ordinary run of American directors, which is understandable, though beyond these little flourishes it never really manages to be as distinctive as the films it’s about. Obviously, at over three hours it could have been a bit tighter, and it’s solidly conventional in form, with a range of talking heads and clips, but it’s nice to hear from his frequent collaborators (plus a few academics, including the ubiquitous-when-it-comes-to-Cassavetes Ray Carney).

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The original DVD of this had some poster galleries, but the Blu-ray edition added those images to the separate films, and relegated this entire documentary to the supplements on the Shadows disc, so despite having its own spine number, it no longer really has a separate identity as a film within the Collection.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Charles Kiselyak; Starring John Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Lynn Carlin, Lelia Goldoni, Carol Kane, Sean Penn, Peter Bogdanovich, Jon Voight, Al Ruban, John Sayles; Length 200 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Tuesday 26 March 2002 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Thursday 18 July 2019).