Criterion Sunday 205: Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss (Veronika Voss, 1982)

One of Fassbinder’s final films (indeed, the last to be released in his lifetime), this is a dreamlike reverie of soft black-and-white, specifically an hommage to a presumed golden era of Hollywood (and Nazi-era) filmmaking, flashbacks to which are all starry-eyed lights and slinky fashion. The star of these films is the title character (Rosel Zech), who a decade after World War II is struggling to get work and struggling to keep her fragile sense of identity. She meets a sports reporter (Hilmar Thate) who doesn’t know who she is, and strikes up an affair, during which he discovers she’s being drugged by a rapacious doctor (Annemarie Düringer), and resolves to try and free her. These genre elements though are largely interwoven into a story that’s about the dangerous addiction not just to morphine but to fame itself, with a subtle through line of satire that is difficult to laugh at given the suffocating atmosphere of much of the film. It’s a more admirable piece than one I genuinely love, but thus is often the way with Fassbinder.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Writers Fassbinder, Pea Fröhlich and Peter Märthesheimer | Cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger | Starring Rosel Zech, Hilmar Thate, Cornelia Froboess, Annemarie Düringer | Length 104 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 March 2018 (and before that on VHS at the university library in Wellington, April 2000)

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Criterion Sunday 196: Hiroshima mon amour (1959)

When people think about pretentious French movies, I think this is somehow the Platonic ideal they’re thinking about, an ur-text of reflective voiceover, alienated detachment and pain, the possibility (and impossibility perhaps) of cultural rapprochement following imperialist aggression, opening as it does with the conjoining of bodies under the ash of nuclear fallout. It is, as has been far more eloquently expressed by commentators far more engaged than I am, about the complex interplay of memory and desire, but it is also aggressively modernist in its construction and the way it engages with the viewer, so unlikely to be for all tastes. I first watched it 20 years ago, and I’ll watch it in another 20, and I can only hope to catch up with what it’s doing by then.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alain Resnais | Writer Marguerite Duras | Cinematographers Michio Takahashi and Sacha Vierny | Starring Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada | Length 90 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 February 2018 (and earlier, on VHS in Wellington, December 1997)

Criterion Sunday 195: I fidanzati (aka The Fiances, 1962)

Presented side-by-side in the Criterion Collection with Olmi’s previous film Il posto, this has a quite different feeling to it, even if it has all the same beauty to its monochrome cinematography. Instead of moving to the big city of Milan, this film has a hero who leaves that city for the remoteness of Sicily. It’s about two people who are already together as of the film’s start, but who seem to be unhappy and drifting apart. It’s a film that doesn’t constantly look forward to a (possibly bleak) future, but continually seems to look back to a (apparently happier) past from that bleak present. This shifts some of the emotional weight of the film a little, but love — while uncertain in both films — here instead has a haunting, spectral presence.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ermanno Olmi | Cinematographer Lamberto Caimi | Starring Carlo Cabrini, Anna Canzi | Length 77 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 February 2018

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

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)

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 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

Criterion Sunday 180: Jag är nyfiken – en film i gult (I Am Curious (Yellow), 1967)

Much of the filmmaking here is obscured by the contemporary controversy that raged about its sexual content, but watching it 50 years on, you wonder how the audiences sat through so much socialist dialectic, class criticism, and sloganeering (with clear influences from the more agitprop end of Godard) without getting annoyed. The critiques it levels about class in Swedish society are far more acute than anything the film seems to do with sexual mores, as 22-year-old actress Lena repeatedly finds herself with some boring car salesman, while every so often her director Vilgot (the film’s actual director) interrupts the action with some Brechtian alienation, presumably meant to keep the audience awake. It’s sort of fascinating, though, and the high-contrast black-and-white photography makes the accusations of ‘pornography’ seem rather far-fetched.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Vilgot Sjöman | Cinematographer Peter Wester | Starring Lena Nyman, Vilgot Sjöman | Length 122 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 12 November 2017

Criterion Sunday 177: Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, 1975)

The records I keep show that I’ve seen this before, but I don’t remember anything about it (admittedly, it was 17 years ago). However, I don’t think that’s from any inherent lack in the storytelling: it presents a tale of a woman being hounded by the police and the press for her possible complicity in a terrorist’s actions from little more than meeting him at a party and sleeping with him. It hardly seems to have aged in 40 years in the ways that women are so often made to publicly feel shame for the act of desire and for events which continue to saturate our headlines, so in that sense it remains very much topical. The heavier-handed thread is about abuses committed in the name of journalism by an out-of-control yellow press intent merely on splashy, exploitative stories that sell papers; this also has hardly aged but the way the film presents it can be a little on the nose, especially in the hypocritical words that form the epilogue. I suspect instead that my absence of memory of seeing this film is perhaps more a stylistic one: it’s shot well, but feels a little prosaic in its cutting, something of that socialist realism of the 70s coming through. And perhaps that’s not itself a failing, really. Like other Margarethe von Trotta works I’ve seen it’s almost too self-effacing stylistically, and deserves greater praise.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta (based on the novel by Heinrich Böll) | Cinematographer Jost Vacano | Starring Angela Winkler, Mario Adorf, Dieter Laser, Jürgen Prochnow | Length 106 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, August 2000 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 29 October 2017)

Criterion Sunday 175: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

I can’t really imagine anyone else adapting this work, and what Gilliam does feels about as faithful as one is likely to get to the tone of Thompson’s novel: it’s a constant barrage of surreal, warped visions of drug-addled psychedelia shading over endlessly into the bleak darkness of the American Vietnam War-era psyche. And yet it’s so exhausting to watch, so unrelentingly ‘gonzo’ in its approach. Surely this is the genesis for the rest of Depp’s later career, as his director makes no effort to rein in Depp’s absurdist tics whatsoever (he probably demanded more), and so his Thompson/Raoul Duke is bouncing off the walls — apt for the character no doubt, but as I say, tiring to watch. Which probably makes this film adaptation some sort of masterpiece, maybe even Gilliam’s best work (he’s certainly not done anything since that, to me, matches it), but it’s also a weary, weary descent into a very specifically American madness.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Terry Gilliam | Writers Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Alex Cox and Tod Davies (based on the novel by Hunter S. Thompson) | Cinematographer Nicola Pecorini | Starring Johnny Depp, Benicio del Toro | Length 118 minutes || Seen at Rialto, Wellington, Saturday 3 October 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 15 October 2017)