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

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Criterion Sunday 176: The Killers (1946/1964)

This Criterion release bundles together two adaptations of the Ernest Hemingway short story from 1927, each separated by almost twenty years and with a different generation of Hollywood direction, though it’s the first adaptation that really sticks out. After all, there’s something immensely satisfying about this key early film noir picture, and it’s not just the high-contrast shadows thrown across the screen, or the world-weary way that Burt Lancaster’s “Swede” meets his death (that’s not a spoiler by the way: that’s the set-up of the film). It’s not in the writing either (although excellent) and not just the first scenes in the diner (which are the ones taken from Hemingway’s short story) which leads into a backstory of intrigue that as it unfolds doubles-down on its double-crosses by piling them on thick and fast. No, what’s satisfying is that all of these elements come together with the excellent noir acting, all that heavy-lidded sense of fatalistic doom conveyed by Lancaster and Gardner but also all the character actors who round out the cast. Even when the plot’s events start to seem like they’re getting out of hand, the film keeps it all in check, and all the character types that seem so familiar to us now are all presented new and fresh.

Don Siegel’s remake may not perhaps be the equal of the Siodmak film (which the producer originally wanted Siegel to direct, apparently), but there’s certainly something to Don Siegel’s reimagining. Despite the film’s title and trailer, there’s not very much left of Ernest Hemingway’s original short story here except the sense in which a man fatalistically accepts his own death at the hands of the title’s killers. Thereupon these two, primarily Lee Marvin (always excellent), take it upon themselves to find out why he was killed, and uncover a ring of gangsters led by Ronald Reagan. The film’s plot takes about half the movie to kick in, and as a film, it feels quite different — less a noir than a doomed romance. It also proves that Reagan was much more convincing as a bad guy, a sad realisation to come with his last performance (maybe if he’d tried it earlier and found more acting success, we all could have been spared his political ambitions). Still, as a film this is a watchable piece of high-toned 60s murder mystery which seems to pave the way for Marvin into the greater, yet somehow stylistically reminiscent, Point Blank a few years later.

Criterion Extras: Joining these two is a film primarily known now as Andrei Tarkovsky’s first (student) film from 1956, although it was co-directed by three film students. It takes on only the events of the short story (clearly influenced visually by Robert Siodmak’s 1946 adaptation) and re-presents it, including some of the racist language that Siodmak’s work had omitted. Indeed, the scenes with the black(face) cook, even at this remove, seem pointlessly racist, but as a film this still shows some flair with its staging.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 22 October 2017
The Killers (1946) || Director Robert Siodmak | Writer Anthony Veiller (based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway) | Cinematographer Woody Bredell | Starring Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien | Length 103 minutes

The Killers (1964) || Director Don Siegel | Writer Gene L. Coon (based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway) | Cinematographer Richard L. Rawlings | Starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Clu Gulager, John Cassavetes, Ronald Reagan | Length 95 minutes

Criterion Sunday 166: Down by Law (1986)

One of Jarmusch’s early minimalist existentialist black-and-white films, structured around a fairly genre setup (crimes, trials, imprisonment, escape) without bothering to show any of the mechanics, just the interpersonal relationships of its three leads. It really looks gorgeous thanks to Jarmusch cannily recruiting Wim Wenders pre-eminent DoP of the 1970s, Robby Müller, and the style works well within that high-contrast black-and-white frame. The New Orleans/Louisiana setting is used well for its expressive architectural and natural possibilities, though the film is a little less sure-footed when it comes to race, which you’d think would be a bigger part of a story from that part of the world. But what it does do, it does with exemplary finesse, that same spare deadpan storytelling that Jarmusch would continue to deploy throughout his career. There’s also a memorable comic turn from Roberto Benigni, a figure who would become far more grating in the following decade.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch | Cinematographer Robby Müller | Starring John Lurie, Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni | Length 107 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 6 August 2017

Criterion Sunday 152: George Washington (2000)

I really like this spare, fugue-like elegy for the dispossessed in all its overtly Malickian sensibilities. Perhaps seeing it at a film festival when it was released, before a lot of other filmmakers had jumped on that particular ride (and the one who made this had very much jumped off), was more surprising but there’s still beauty and warmth, in those magic light colours of a place where the South meets the rust belt, and the feeling in the non-professional actors. A really vivid take on the coming of age that does most of its thematic work in little vignettes of community life and almost throwaway dialogue, preferring stretches of contemplative reflection of quiet desuetude.

Criterion Extras: Besides a trailer, there’s also quite a few interesting extras, most notably two student short films by Green, Pleasant Grove (1997) and Physical Pinball (1998). Both share quite a few similarities with George Washington, which lifts the first’s story of a boy with a stray dog who can’t take it home as a little detail for George. While this first one is a sweet slow little film that sets up some ideas that would be progressed by the feature, the second feels more fully rounded. It’s about a father-daughter relationship (both actors would return for the feature), and has a nice sense of how out of his depth the father is after his wife has passed.

Along with these is A Day with the Boys (1969), a short by actor Clu Gulager, a wordless film with a hazy nostalgic tone, all slo-mo running set to plaintive trumpet (very much of its era), jazzed up with all kinds of visual touches. It all turns a bit Lord of the Flies, as I suppose many days with the boys will, but it’s a diverting mood piece.

Aside from this there’s a Charlie Rose interview with a (very young!) David Gordon Green, which covers a few of his influences, not to mention some insights about how he cast and shot the film, though it is quite short. A deleted scene of a town hall meeting imparts a sense of some of Green’s verité reference points, as the camera does quick zooms and pans in the style of those fly-on-the-wall documentaries from the 60s. Finally, there’s a short piece interviewing its child stars a year after release in 2001, as they expound on how it was to make the film, and some of their aspirations.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Gordon Green | Cinematographer Tim Orr | Starring Candace Evanofski, Donald Holden | Length 89 minutes || Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Friday 20 July 2001 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 7 May 2017)

Criterion Sunday 148: Ballada o soldate (Ballad of a Soldier, 1959)

It seems to me that f you’re going to do an “anti-war” film, this is the best kind of template. Without any speechifying or overt statements, Ballad of a Soldier makes its position clear about how wrenching and difficult war can be, by the simple expedient of its unadorned story. A simple country lad (Vladimir Ivashov), thrust into a pan-European conflict, travels back home just to hug his mother for one last time. It’s sweet without being sentimental, and affecting without being bleak or angry.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Grigori Chukhrai | Writers Valentin Yezhov and Grigori Chukhrai | Cinematographers Vladimir Nikolayev and Era Savelyeva | Starring Vladimir Ivashov, Zhanna Prokhorenko | Length 88 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday

Criterion Sunday 146: Letyat zhuravli (The Cranes Are Flying, 1957)

It’s worrying to recall that I’ve put off seeing this film for so long (a couple of decades since I studied film and first learned about it) because I just thought it looked a bit dull and earnest, in a typically propagandistic Soviet sort of way. Anyone who’s seen it will know this is totally the wrong idea to take of such a glorious work of almost pure cinema. Indeed, it far more presages the French New Wave in its lyrical flights of fancy, its crisp editing and remarkable monochrome cinematography. It’s a love story set against the backdrop of World War II — familiar enough — but it fights shy of any too obvious symbolism, and though you can somewhat predict how things will go, it also confounds some of those expectations. It really is a masterpiece.

Criterion Extras: Simply nothing, except an essay in the booklet. I’ve been critical of these bare-bones releases in the past (the sort of thing one imagines they started the Eclipse imprint to do), but it’s such a startling and beautiful film it almost needs nothing aside from a clean transfer of the print — which it has.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Mikhail Kalatozov | Writer Viktor Rozov (based on his play) | Cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky | Starring Tatiana Samoilova, Aleksey Batalov | Length 97 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 February 2017

Criterion Sunday 145: Hoří, má panenko (The Firemen’s Ball aka The Fireman’s Ball, 1967)

This seems a very slight premise — the volunteer firemen in a small town throw a ball to honour a former chairman stricken with cancer — but it builds to quite a comic evisceration of small-town bureaucracy, small-minded men or, perhaps, an entire dysfunctional government, if you want to follow it through that way. In any case, it builds plenty of gags on its thin premise, as things get ever more absurd and those red-faced old men are shown up for the ineffectively authoritarian fools they are.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Miloš Forman | Writers Miloš Forman, Ivan Passer and Jaroslav Papoušek | Cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček | Starring Jan Vostrcil | Length 71 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 19 February 2017

Criterion Sunday 144: Lásky jedné plavovlásky (Loves of a Blonde aka A Blonde in Love, 1965)

Ostensibly a film about, as the title suggests, a young blonde woman in love, there are a lot of turbulent emotional currents running through. Yes there’s love, but it’s never quite clear who feels love for whom, or whether that’s even something realistic. We start in a large group, as middle-aged soldiers court a small town’s young women — pathetically, at that. Then there’s a romantic pairing of two young people (including the title character, played by Hana Brejchová), then a section at his parents’ home which feels like a bitter rebuke to her (or to him) that things could ever work out. Or maybe they could, but no romantic feeling is uncomplicated or sentimentalised here.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Miloš Forman | Writers Miloš Forman and Jaroslav Papoušek | Cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček | Starring Hana Brejchová, Vladimír Pucholt | Length 90 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 19 February 2017

Criterion Sunday 138: Rashomon (1950)

Though it may be one of those films that’s always on a best-of list somewhere, and therefore has the sense of being a boring dusty old classic, thankfully it’s for many good reasons and none of them involve being bored. Whatever else, it must be one of the most influential movies ever, not least for its audacious structure, moving back and forward in time and presenting overlapping testimonies on a rape/murder, each of which conflict with the others. It’s a film about the power and responsibility of storytelling, and of the infinite variety of interpretation, made by a filmmaker who — more than most others — has utter mastery over narrative exposition in filmic form. Kurosawa really is peerless in this regard; every cut and every scene moves the narrative forward in some way, or develops a theme of the film. The acting is iconic (suitably so) and much has been written about the sun-dappled cinematography. But for all the exegeses and critical plaudits, it stands up as a film which still entertains and educates.

Criterion Extras: Chief among the extras is a documentary called A Testimony as an Image (2012). This is, essentially, a making-of extra, albeit with the benefit of over a half-century of hindsight. The few remaining living crew members who worked on Kurosawa’s film come together to discuss their memories of its creation, so we get plenty about how the script came together (from one of the assistant directors, and a script supervisor), then about the set construction (from one of the lighting people), about that notable cinematography and the challenges of shooting in a dark forest, and about the stresses Kurosawa was under to get the release finished despite setbacks include a studio fire. It’s based around these reminiscences, with a few archival shots and some explanatory text, but these elderly men (and one woman) retain vivid memories and their recollections are worth listening to.

Also on the disc are around 15 minutes of excerpts from a documentary about cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, and a short address to camera by Robert Altman about how all the influences he stole from Kurosawa and from this film in particular. There’s also a halting radio interview with Takashi Shimura from around 1960, which is interesting if not especially enlightening. Donald Richie’s commentary track helps to pull out a lot of the themes, and engages the viewer with an awareness of all that Kurosawa and his team achieve in the film, making it even better and more interesting (I rewatched it with the commentary immediately after the film, and it didn’t get boring at all).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Akira Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto (based on short stories “Rashomon” and “Yabu no Naka” [In a Grove] by Ryunosuke Akutagawa) | Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura | Length 88 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Wednesday 14 April 1999 (as well as earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, November 1997, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 1 January 2017)

Criterion Sunday 137: Notorious (1946)

Top Hitchcockery here from the master of morally-dubious controlling men — and all the men really are very bad people (Cary Grant as government agent Devlin included, handsome a figure though he may be). Ingrid Bergman is lovely even as the daughter of a Nazi enlisted to spy on her father’s friends, and proves you don’t have to have done much to have a reputation. Then again, perhaps it is more than just she who befits the film’s title. She also brushes past all the insinuations with aplomb, at least until she cannot. Plenty of great but unostentatious camerawork and thrills aplenty, especially in an excellent wine cellar scene.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alfred Hitchcock | Writer Ben Hecht | Cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff | Starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains | Length 101 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 December 2016