Criterion Sunday 252: Faces (1968)

This is in some ways the ur-Cassavetes picture, which came after a few unsuccessful studio pictures in the early-60s as a return to the improvisational quality of Shadows, not to mention developing the verité-style black-and-white high-contrast camerawork into a grander form. Although it was all scripted, it does still feel like the actors are using the script as a means to finding the emotion, and that’s what Cassavetes is ultimately most interested in, those unforced moments of feeling that come through in the actors’ performances. Frequently the scenes as written feel rambling or unfocused, and often the actors are playing drunk, which doesn’t always pay off, but it captures something that a lot of cinema wasn’t doing in the US of the 1960s (Bergman is namechecked within the film, and that feels like a more fair comparison point). Thus, for all that it’s a film about an older man confronting mortality and a fairly unremarkable working life, as well as people trapped somewhat in the past, it also feels quite fresh and honest in a way.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • As with most of Cassavetes’ films, there are multiple versions that exist. The original cut was around three hours, and there was also a 147 minute cut, from which 18 minutes of an introduction feature here as an extra.
  • Making ‘Faces’ (2004) is a fairly standard making-of Criterion extra, which is structured around interviews with four key members of the production who were still alive: the cameraman/editor Al Ruban, and actors Gena Rowlands, Seymour Cassel and Lynn Carlin. All of them provide stories from the film’s set that suggest Cassavetes’ methods, how he helped actors to find the performance, as well as the way his artistic direction manifested itself (he wanted actors to find their own way into the characters, rather than providing notes, as one example). Al Ruban (the cinematographer and editor) expands on some of the technical challenges, such as finding all the sound was un-synched at the end, or having too few lights to film the big club scenes.
  • Ruban also contributes a separate 12-minute extra just about his choice of film stock and lighting for the film’s relatively restrained number of locations, which is probably more for those with an interest in lighting.
  • Finally, there’s a two-part interview for the French TV series Cinéastes de notre temps, conducted during the making of and after the release of Faces. We get much of his credo and philosophy of filmmaking — and one which has informed a lot of independent cinema ever since: the idea that even if you don’t have any money, you should go out and make your vision, in the hope that at least someone will share your passion somewhere down the line. Cassavetes comes across as supremely relaxed and chatty in the first part, filmed presumably in some manic period during production, as he paces around his offices and home, and introduces the people around him, all bonhomie and gregarious host, which the filmmakers cannily intercut with footage of laughter and joviality in the film he’s made, suggesting the direct line from his lived experience to his art.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes | Cinematographer Al Ruban | Starring John Marley, Gena Rowlands, Lynn Carlin, Seymour Cassel | Length 130 minutes || Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 8 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 1999, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Monday 27 May 2019)

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Criterion Sunday 251: Shadows (1959)

Cassavetes had great success as an actor but his directorial recognition came somewhat belatedly, though it’s what he’s most known for now, and this, his first film, feels at times like an experiment that doesn’t always work. But when it does work, it has the energy and spontaneity that little of the rest of American cinema of the time had, though it shares some genetic material with, say, the location-shot films of Ruth Orkin and Morris Engel, so it’s not entirely sui generis. However, it feels most of a part with contemporary trends such as the French New Wave, and there’s so much of this (literally) jazzy first film that recall the flights of fancy of the French directors. Much of that revolves around the three or four key actors in the movie, and especially Lelia Goldoni as the mixed-race Lelia (the actor is Italian-American), though even her drama with a white guy who comes home to meet her brothers feels like just one small part of a wider story that feels at times more like it’s documenting a scene or capturing an era — though that’s probably the benefit of hindsight. Even after 60 years, this still feels like a fresh and interesting film, and there’s a lot more laughing and joking around than I remember, and that’s how the film leaves us: a little bit light-hearted about the young people in NYC.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are some mid-2000s interviews with the star Lelia Goldoni, and with Seymour Cassel, who even this early in Cassavetes’ career was already working with him (and served as associate producer on the film).
  • There’s silent footage from the acting workshop that Cassavetes ran during the late-50s, including some images of the actors in this film.
  • There are some images from the production and posters in a small gallery section.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Cassavetes | Writers Cassavetes and Robert Alan Aurthur | Cinematographer Erich Kullmar | Starring Lelia Goldoni, Ben Carruthers, Hugh Hurd | Length 87 minutes || Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 8 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, July 2001, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Friday 10 May 2019)

Criterion Sunday 249: La battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers, 1966)

Over 50 years on and there’s still an enormous amount of clarity and power in this film set against the backdrop of the last few years of the French occupation of Algeria, during the Algerian War, effectively a battle for independence. Pontecorvo’s style emphasises its indebtedness to documentary, by using handheld cameras and a grainy high-contrast black-and-white image that suggests newsreel footage at times. But its thematic achievement is in treating both sides with some semblance of equality, even if it’s clear that the moral force is on the side of the Algerians. While the FLN agitators are not dismissed as mere terrorists, there’s also clearly conflict about their methods and targets, and they are hardly romanticised as freedom fighters. Meanwhile, the film does not in any way exonerate the French in this conflict either, who are ultimately the aggressors, as the colonialist power. The French commander, a tall man in shades, strikes a heroic figure, but despite his successes against the Nazis, his tactics are questioned here, and he remains morally compromised as a player in the drama. The central character arc is for Brahim Haggiag’s Ali, who ascends from petty thief to a figure of central importance within the FLN resistance as a result of prison radicalisation. The film’s narrative takes his story, starting with the end and looping back in time to bring the story full circle, all the while moving the action forward propulsively. As such, the film never slows down for much of its two hours, a very watchable film about a complex struggle that never feels like it’s taking an easy way out.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The first disc includes a documentary called Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth (1992), a fairly brief TV piece which has Edward Said reflecting on the relatively few films of Pontecorvo, and why he should have largely disappeared from the cinephile conversation by the 1990s. There’s an interview with Pontecorvo himself, who suggests some reasons (a fear of failure seems to be chief among them), and there’s some good context on the making of all three of the features mentioned, particularly The Battle of Algiers.
  • There are interviews with five directors who speak about the film’s importance to their own craft, picking out elements of the style and its production, not that you’d necessarily expect it from people like Steven Soderbergh or Mira Nair.
  • There are also loads of other films and contextualising documents, which I’ll add here as I watch them.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Gillo Pontecorvo | Writers Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas | Cinematographer Marcello Gatti | Starring Brahim Haggiag, Jean Martin | Length 120 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 19 May 2019

Criterion Sunday 248: Videodrome (1983)

I had this idea that I watched this film with my stepbrothers when I was a kid, but if I did I certainly didn’t get it at the time (nor do I remember any of it upon rewatching so I may just be imagining it). However, as a result, I’ve probably spent more of my life than is reasonable believing I wasn’t really ‘into’ David Cronenberg’s brand of body horror combined with media satire. That said, I’ve seen plenty of his films since, and I’ve liked most of them quite a lot, but yet still retained some core of that original belief, perhaps modified somewhat into some idea that he’s just an outré auteur who panders to horror-soaked fanboys’ wet dreams… and clearly — look, you all know this already — but I’m wrong.

Videodrome looks from the outside as something nasty and exploitative, but it feels more like an advance warning from a Nostradamus of the early-1980s about everything we have in our culture now. The technology may look a little clunky but the effects still hold up really well. It’s the kind of film that you probably need to rewatch a number of times to figure out its particular configuration of the televisual exploitation of sleaze, sex, sexual violence and depravity, the way that links to notions of masculine performance (James Woods, who nowadays probably really is that guy he’s playing here, hallucinates a literal vagina opening across much of his torso), added to which there’s the fetishisation of videotapes. There are also so many layers of hallucinatory dream life that it stops being clear what’s real and what’s just in the head of Max/Nicki/Prof O’Blivion/Cronenberg/whoever else might be imagining this stuff.

In short, it opened up my head like Barry Convex’s in this film, and I don’t know if I can be the same again. The 1980s was the decade of Cronenberg, no doubt.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Cronenberg | Cinematographer Mark Irwin | Starring James Woods, Debbie Harry, Sonja Smits | Length 89 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 6 May 2019

Criterion Sunday 247: Slacker (1990)

It’s 30 years since this film was shot, and whatever you might think of it, it certainly has created a legacy, both of independent filmmaking, but also by way of capturing a zeitgeist, a spirit of a certain strand of alternative American existence (whether here in Austin TX or in Portland OR, et al.): places that have defined themselves by a certain lo-fi aesthetic and bohemian drop-out culture. The strongest aspect remains Linklater’s narrative structure, which builds on the familiarity of multi-strand intersecting narratives, but instead has characters just bump into one another, pulling the camera (and thus the viewer) into these constantly changing stories, all set within the same city, in a tight (but not real-time) framework. It’s all queued up by Linklater’s appearance as the first of these figures, indulging in some pseudo-philosophical ramblings in the back of a taxicab (shades of Scorsese in Taxi Driver, and a tendency which Linklater would indulge in his later films), which both gently pokes fun at his pretensions but also lays out the film’s alternative realities groundwork. Ultimately the rambling concept can’t help but exceeding the framework of the film, but this leads to a final act of filmic self-destruction a little bit reminiscent of Two-Lane Blacktop in a way, and brings a fitting close to this era-defining film.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Among the many extras is Woodshock (1985), a very early short film by Linklater which focuses on a local indie music festival. No footage of the music is shown, but there’s a charming DIY aesthetic to this lo-fi footage of the audience just milling about and acting like quintessential music festival audiences, not to mention an eager young Daniel Johnston toting his cassette album.
  • There’s also footage from a 10th anniversary cast reunion at a cinema in Austin, which features a lot of the local cast reflecting on the film and their experiences in front of an audience.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Richard Linklater | Cinematographer Lee Daniel | Length 100 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 April 2019 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, January 2000)

Criterion Sunday 242: Le Carrosse d’or (The Golden Coach, 1952)

I think the tendency of post-war European cinema around this time, especially in Italy, was towards neo-realism, shooting on the streets, giving that documentary sense of gritty immediacy, and so Renoir shooting a very theatrical film on the soundstages of Cinecittà in Italy, with a very stylised use of saturated colour and glorious, ornate sets and costumes, with Italian and American actors speaking in English in a story set in Latin America (Peru, apparently) feels like a very studied riposte to all that. In fact, it feels like a more deeply-felt commentary on the nature of acting and performance to make this kind of film at this time, a film that dwells on spectacle as something which almost seems corrupting: the obscenity of the golden coach at the film’s centre makes the government lose their minds, and becomes a tool of bargaining between men and, ultimately, the church — in a penultimate speech by the Bishop which is interrupted by Renoir cutting between all the assembled faces, expressing wry delight or shocked disdain. There’s a subtle comment on the nature of imperialism, too, as this Latin American colony becomes enthralled to the Italian Anna Magnani and her troupe of actors, threatening to depose the viceroy and create a new life fighting for the rights and sovereignty of the native peoples (though this at least feels a little in passing). I think Renoir’s later films are some of his finest work, operating at a different register from much of contemporary cinema, and all the better for it.

[NB Criterion lists the year as 1953, although this film appears to have been released in Italy in December 1952.]


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir | Writers Renoir, Jack Kirkland, Renzo Avanzo, Giulio Macchi and Ginette Doynel (based on the play Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement by Prosper Mérimée) | Cinematographer Claude Renoir | Starring Anna Magnani, Odoardo Spadaro, Duncan Lamont | Length 103 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 March 2019

Criterion Sunday 237: Sommarnattens leende (Smiles of a Summer Night, 1955)

I’ve seen this Bergman film before and what I like about this comedy — and it is very much a comedy, even if it has moments of existential doubt and crises of faith — is that its characters are so flamboyantly ridiculous. At least, I should say, its male characters: the pompous lawyer Fredrik with his ridiculous beard (though his charm seems largely that he’s aware of how he’s mocked); Count Malcolm with his high-handed manner; and the foolish young Henrik, who falls for Fredrik’s younger bride. Sondheim adapted all of this for a musical, and that all makes perfect sense when you see this parade of emotions play out on screen, with particularly strong roles for the older woman Desirée who so effortlessly manipulates everyone around her, not to mention the maid Petra who cares so little for their bourgeois affectations. It’s a fun film, and one that I wish more of Bergman’s filmography could be like.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman | Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer | Starring Eva Dahlbeck, Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Ulla Jacobsson | Length 111 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 22 February 2019 (and originally on DVD at home, London, Monday 12 August 2013)

Criterion Sunday 235: Il gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963)

There’s something about Visconti’s The Leopard that makes it feel like a relic from a previous era of filmmaking, or perhaps its ultimate summation in many ways. Of course, it’s set in the past (the 19th century), and tells a story of an aristocratic family headed by Burt Lancaster’s paterfamilias, confronting a new era of Italy’s reunification under Garibaldi. However, it has that period detail and a certain patina of widescreen cinematography and big, lush melodramatic action that suggests the prestige Hollywood pictures of the 1950s. The confrontation between the aristocracy and the middle-classes — the resigned sense of a world that’s changing beyond one’s control (which plays out primarily across Lancaster’s face) — is very much the kind of grand theme that feels of its time, rather less common in modern cinema (though entitled aristocrats will also be a staple of the costume drama). The way the film works best comes down in large part to Lancaster’s stillness while everything whirls around him — literally so in the last third, which is set amongst a grand ball. Those who are attentive to acting, as to sumptuous set design, will find a lot to like here, and there’s something about the grandeur of the entire undertaking that feels like it will only become more suggestive and richer the more times one watches it, so perhaps by the time I reach Lancaster’s age, I will unreservedly love this. For me now, the film feels like an exemplar (a glorious, expressive one admittedly) of a certain decadent form, just as Lancaster (and his nephew played by Alain Delon) represent that decadence in practice.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luchino Visconti | Writers Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli, Massimo Franciosa, Visconti and Suso Cecchi d’Amico (based on the novel by Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa) | Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno | Starring Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, Alain Delon | Length 185 minutes || Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 6 June 2003 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 6 January 2019)

Criterion Sunday 234: Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum, 1979)

I do sort of understand what’s going on here in this strange, carnivalesque, alternately gleeful and bleak evocation of pre-war and wartime Germany in the 1930s and 40s. Its protagonist is a young child, Oskar (David Bennent), who has foreseen his future and decided he wants to remain in the body of a 3-year-old (well, an 11-year-old for the purposes of the actor anyway), using the drum of the title to beat out his own tune as he first reacts against the encroaching Nazification and then finds himself dragged in as well. There are all kinds of sprightly filmmaking touches, the hand-cranked sped-up film of the intro flashing back many decades, the absurdist plot and character details, and of course the ridiculous perversity of this teenager-in-a-child’s-body growing, learning, reading and falling in love. Yet I never can quite connect with him or care about his story: he’s a nasty character — and yes, of course he is, that entirely makes sense — and his story is one with parallels in the bleak hopelessness of the Nazi era, but his childish, imp-like quality is just incessant, and it becomes grating. I never much take to magic realism or carnivalesque absurdity, and there’s plenty of the latter on show here.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Volker Schlöndorff | Writers Schlöndorff, Jean-Claude Carrière and Franz Seitz (based on the novel by Günter Grass) | Cinematographer Igor Luther | Starring David Bennent, Mario Adorf, Angela Winkler | Length 163 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 1 January 2019

Criterion Sunday 232: Ukikusa Monogatari (A Story of Floating Weeds, 1934)/Ukigusa (Floating Weeds, 1959)

Bringing together two films by Ozu, his first made towards the tail-end of the silent era of cinema in Japan, and the later one a remake in colour towards the end of his career, this allows for a compare-and-contrast approach between the two, and for me Ozu has grown significantly as a filmmaker, such that the latter is the greater work. Ozu didn’t make many colour films (it took him long enough to get into sound films, after all), but the remake is lovely in many respects. The framing, the pacing and the use of colour is all expertly done. While it’s a drama about an elderly travelling player returning to the small town where he fathered a child — a son who only knows him as ‘Uncle’ — it’s also filled with moments of comedy, for the father (here played by Ganjiro Nakamura) is a rather bad actor and there’s plenty of fun at the expense of his hamminess. The drama with his son didn’t always connect with me on this viewing, but there’s a lot of pathos to the way his life has unfolded — even if he rather too often takes it out on the women around him. The earlier film (from 1934) follows the same melodramatic plot (with Takeshi Sakamoto as the father), but it never succumbs to anything mawkish or sentimental. Ozu expresses it all so clearly that I imagine I’d pick up on a lot more were I to watch it again (which, given for technical reasons I had to watch it all completely silent, I feel I should probably do).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

Ukikusa Monogatari (A Story of Floating Weeds, 1934) || Director Yasujiro Ozu | Writers Tadao Ikeda and Ozu | Cinematographer Hideo Shigehara | Starring Takeshi Sakamoto, Choko Iida, Rieko Yagumo | Length 86 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 30 September 2018

Ukigusa (Floating Weeds, 1959) || Director Yasujiro Ozu | Writers Kogo Noda and Ozu | Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa | Starring Ganjiro Nakamura, Machiko Kyo, Haruko Sugimura | Length 119 minutes || Seen at university library (laserdisc), Wellington, October 1997 (and most recently on DVD a friend’s home, London, Sunday 7 October 2018)