Two Films by Kira Muratova: The Asthenic Syndrome (1989) and Chekhovian Motifs (aka Chekhov’s Motifs, 2002)

The Ukrainian director Kira Muratova died in 2018 after a long career starting in the 1960s. Her filmmaking is perplexing, perhaps wrought from the chaotic times she worked through, dense with allusion and busy with action, almost breathlessly so. I can’t pretend to understand all the details, and in some cases much of it seems to wash over me, but I can’t deny she was doing something fascinating and her films remain worth watching if you can (and they are not always easy to track down).

Continue reading “Two Films by Kira Muratova: The Asthenic Syndrome (1989) and Chekhovian Motifs (aka Chekhov’s Motifs, 2002)”

Criterion Sunday 297: Au hasard Balthazar (1966)

I’m pretty sure you can throw around the word “masterpiece” about any of Bresson’s films, if you are someone who likes and appreciates his style (and it’s not for everyone). Important scenes are sometimes broken down synecdochally such that we only see an extreme close-up of someone’s hand or legs as a stand-in for them, and these brief snippets of action are used to convey some dramatic or uncomfortable event (a rape, say). It’s certainly effective if you are attuned to what Bresson is doing, and lends an almost spiritually ascetic quality to the proceedings. This isn’t my favourite of his films, and in some ways it’s a rather melodramatic story of a young woman and her donkey, as well as the many men who mistreat both of them. Their suffering is reminiscent of The Passion of Joan of Arc, silent and with a sense of grace, part of which comes from the very specific acting method he encourages, which minimises any kind of externalisation of suffering in expressive movement or facial responses. Still, this film no less than Bresson’s others, is beautifully controlled and enunciated in a very specifically visual film language.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert Bresson; Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet; Starring Anne Wiazemsky, François Lafarge, Walter Green, Jean-Claude Guilbert; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Tuesday 19 June 2001 (also earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 1999, and most recently on Blu-ray home, London, Saturday 15 February 2020).

On the Town (1949)

Moving back through time is perhaps the best way to get a film that features some rather more successful romancing. After all, in my week nominally dedicated to love and marriage, most of my examples have been fairly undemonstrative of either of those. This 1949 musical features three sailors on furlough in the big city, so obviously there have to be some dames — though of course the structure means that they’ll all part by the end of the film.


There is, undeniably, a delight to so much of this musical. It sees Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and one other guy who’s not really very well known (Jules Munshin) alight for 24 hours in New York City. We’re supposed to believe that none of them have ever visited before, and truly they do play up to their naivete which may strain credulity given they’re in the Navy, but sort of fits with the jovial tone of the whole film. The three of them happen across three far more worldly women, who following the comic reversals of the film are the ones whose minds are only on one thing, and it’s not sightseeing — indeed, Sinatra being the nerdy stats-obsessed one becomes one of the better running jokes. Not all the tunes are particularly memorable — although Hildy (Betty Garrett) is probably the most distinctive character, the woman cab driver who’s desperate to bed Sinatra’s character, their duet together is fairly dull — but there are plenty that do make a splash, and Ann Miller’s anthropology student Claire winking broadly at the camera for the double entendres is a real highlight (as is her dress). The costume game, in general, is on top form, with colour coordinated outfits to offset the blandness of the sailor uniforms.

This screening was introduced by Kelly’s widow, who trailed that they had difficulty getting it made into a musical because the studio head apparently feared the threat of a diverse cast given its metropolitan setting and the sequences which are filmed on location, which as an introduction was a bit of a misdirect because this film hardly celebrates diversity. Aside from the fact that the only women of colour are seen in nightclub choruses who swiftly depart stage left each time they’re seen, there’s also (to modern eyes perhaps) a woefully tone-deaf appropriation of cultural difference in the anthropology museum number. Whereas the sequence introducing Vera-Ellen’s Ivy suggests the impossibility of cultural expectations of femininity, the anthropology museum sequence is just using native dress to make cheap jokes that you feel the ensemble should really be above. And the macho bullying of the unfortunate Lucy is only passingly redeemed by Gabe’s civility to her by the end of the evening.

Still, on the whole this is a lively and entertaining musical with all the style you’d expect of a big Technicolor Hollywood production.

On the Town film posterCREDITS
Directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen; Writers Adolph Green and Betty Comden (based on the stage musical by Green, Comden and Leonard Bernstein, itself based on the ballet Fancy Free by Jerome Robbins); Cinematographer Harold Rosson; Starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Betty Garrett, Ann Miller, Jules Munshin, Vera-Ellen; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Saturday 26 October 2019.

Criterion Sunday 289: Hoop Dreams (1994)

I’m not exactly a big sports fan (and I know nothing about basketball), but it seems to me that when your team wins, you get happy not just for the drama of the contest but the hope that this win will lead to bigger and better things, and eventually your team will be the champions. We watch a fair few clips of basketball games in Hoop Dreams, but it’s not the teams’ wins that matter, but those of the two boys whom the film is following, and the hope — which sometimes seems as distant as the idea of a championship win to some of these teams — that their lives can be better.

After all, this ultimately is a film about what it takes to make something of yourself in America, specifically when you’re born poor and Black and live in an area of a big city (Chicago in this case) where there’s little enough money to be made honestly, and only crime and drugs seem to be good options. I think that’s a story that became particularly familiar during the 1990s in cinema — when making cinema about the African-American experience seemed to be all about ghettos and crime. But if that’s a background that has dogged Arthur Agee’s dad (as only the most notable example within the film), what’s excellent about is that he’s never just those things in the film. Indeed, like all the characters, he has many levels, and most of all we remember him as a dad (and a particularly effusive and supportive one), which by the end of the film both Arthur and William also are.

This film follows both of these guys over a period of about five years, as they go from promising 14-year-old kids scouted by a high school recruiter on the poorly-maintained courts of the Chicago suburbs where they live, through a peculiarly American high school system, where kids with sporting talent get scholarships and money and chances, as long as they perform. Of course, they have to travel for hours to get to these nice schools in predominantly white neighbourhoods, to play ball and win leagues. But Arthur doesn’t quite make the grade for that school, so finds himself busted down to a less wealthy local school.

You end up caring about it all, because it’s not about the Game but about the people just trying to make a chance in life, doing their best not to be worn down or overtaken by the Game, though it’s always looking for new talent and the chances move by all too quickly at times. It’s also about families and community, and that’s probably what lingers the longest for both these players, and whatever their own personal successes and failures (both within this film and since it was released), it’s the time with the families that sticks around.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • One of the film’s big champions from its very first appearance at Sundance Film Festival in January 1994 was the Siskel and Ebert film review show, and we see clips of Gene and Robert talking about the film on their TV shows, from Jan 1994, through its wider American release, as well as in episodes leading up to and after the Oscar nominations, and then an end-of-year best of list (in which both named it as their favourite film) and finally at the end of the decade, after Gene’s passing the previous year, when Roger named it his favourite film of the 1990s and talks briefly to Martin Scorsese about the film.
  • In the clips of Roger Ebert, we see him imagining a return to the same characters after a number of years have passed, and as if in answer to that is Life After Hoop Dreams (2015), a 40 minute follow-up directed by Steve James and Abbey Lustgarten (a Criterion producer). It is primarily filmed ten years after the original film, but then picks up with some interviews a further 10 years on from that (like a very abbreviated 7 Up). Obviously it can’t stand up to the original, but it’s interesting to see how the boys we saw in the first film have grown up, putting into perspective their childhood dreams and the great maturity they’ve gained through life experience and — to an extent — tragedy, as both have lost people close to them. What is clear that the love and dream of basketball hasn’t died in either, though we see that like the parents in the original documentary, it’s their children who are now more of the focus for each.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Steve James; Writers James and Frederick Marx; Cinematographer Peter Gilbert; Length 170 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 2 February 2020.

Criterion Sunday 288: F for Fake (aka ?, aka Vérités et mensonges, 1973)

There’s something seemingly inexhaustible about this (essentially final) film by Orson Welles, an essay film in the form of a documentary about fakery whose on-screen title is “?” and has Welles basically wonder aloud for 90 minutes what exactly defines art. In this sense, it’s his film about his own creative practice, which by this point in his career was largely smoke and mirrors anyway, given how few projects he managed to see to completion. Welles appears as the narrator, wandering around these various European locales in his heavy black cape, posing questions and telling tall tales, which even in the hour of film he claims is true, probably aren’t, or at least touch on people whose work has been all about elaborately lying. And then there are minutes-long stretches of the film where he just has guys staring at the semi-clothed body of his partner and muse Oja Kodar, which I suppose implicates the audiences’ desires somewhat in the production of these fictions, although she too is intriguingly a fiction of sorts (using a name Welles gave her). It’s all very clever, and I don’t doubt the care taken in its composition, but it also feels very spontaneous and even a little bit like something tossed off quickly, such that perhaps it’s impossible to know where the boundaries between truth and fiction lie, and whether they even really matter when it comes to art.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Probably the most interesting of the extras on the disc is the feature-length documentary co-directed by Welles’s former partner Oja Kodar, Orson Welles: The One-Man Band (1995), in which all the unfinished projects he was working on are presented as part of a wander through his life, as related by Kodar herself (and a German narrator). At least one of the projects covered in this documentary may have actually reached fruition in the 25 years since it was made — The Other Side of the Wind (finally completed and released last year) — but this assemblage of bits of Orson Welles’s unfinished projects still has a lot to fascinate. Kodar is seen reflecting a bit on their time together in some of the linking footage between the scraps of Welles’ own filmmaking, though more amusing is the footage of an onstage masterclass Welles seems to be leading, as he takes questions from the audience. The film footage itself runs the gamut from lost Shakespeare adaptations (him doing Shylock in a TV version of The Merchant of Venice) to a weird London-set comedy thing where Welles is the one-man street performer of the title (along with a guy getting fitted for a suit, and a cheerful copper), to his film of The Deep, an ill-advised Chinese character for… something, a cherished adaptation of Don Quixote, and then there are just the bits of him reciting random chapters from Moby Dick. All are infused with Welles’s own sense of impish delight at the pleasure of acting: for all his directing talent, he remained an exuberant performer above all else and that much is showcased here.
  • The nine-minute trailer (presented here in a black-and-white version) is essentially a separate short film that Welles made to support the American release of the film in 1976. (Incidentally, the film’s year of production varies somewhat, as it’s listed as 1975 on this disc, which is the year it premiered at the NY Film Festival, but it had been screened earlier in 1973 and 1974 at other European festivals, and is given as 1973 in most places.)
  • Peter Bogdanovich provides a filmed introduction, as he does for a number of Welles projects, and speaks a little about the background to the production and some of the trickery that Welles gets up to in the film.
  • Welles is interviewed by Tom Snyder in 1975 for his TV show Tomorrow, in which Snyder proves himself to be a fairly good interviewer, clutching a cigarette as seems to have been the way back then, and occasionally throwing out rather oddball questions, presumably designed to elicit something from Welles. Still, it nicely covers a lot of his more recent work and Welles remains as always an engaging presence.
  • One of the participants in F for Fake, journalist Clifford Irving, is interviewed by 60 Minutes in 2000, revisiting an earlier story about his Howard Hawks biography hoax, in which Irving fully admits to his fakery and talks about how it came about. There’s also an audio recording from 1972 of Howard Hughes speaking by phone to reporters, a fascinating part of the Hughes mythos if you are into that kind of thing, though he just seems like a slightly befuddled older man (and nowhere near as bonkers as half the things regularly said by the current US President).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Orson Welles; Writers Welles and Oja Kodar; Cinematographers François Reichenbach and Gary Graver; Starring Orson Welles, Oja Kodar; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 26 January 2020 (and originally on VHS at home, Wellington, November 1999).

Criterion Sunday 285: Popiół i diament (Ashes and Diamonds, 1958)

I’ve seen this film before apparently, but I really don’t recall it, which is odd. Visually, it builds on Wajda’s previous two films, particularly Kanal (1957), only deepening and enriching its monochrome tones, and setting up some beautiful and striking deep focus shots. It really is something to look at, helped along by Zbigniew Cybulski’s Maciek in his dark glasses. I don’t see him as particularly glamorous or attractive, though he has a certain screen appeal, and his work on behalf of the Communist underground in assassinating political opponents is hardly endearing either, but that’s the drama of the film. It all whirls by with a lightness of touch that recalls Renoir’s La Règle du jeu without perhaps the sense of absurdity (or without quite the same level of absurdity, because there’s certainly at least some humour at work here). It’s a film, a trilogy indeed, about the legacy of World War II in Poland, and as such these films by Wajda had a huge impact on the development of Polish filmmaking, somewhat akin to the French New Wave. I wanted to like this a lot more than I did, but it’s certainly a fine work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrzej Wajda; Writers Jerzy Andrzejewski and Wajda (based on the novel by Andrzejewski); Cinematographer Jerzy Wójcik; Starring Zbigniew Cybulski, Ewa Krzyżewska, Wacław Zastrzeżyński; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 3 April 2002 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Monday 6 January 2020).

Criterion Sunday 281: Jules et Jim (Jules and Jim, 1962)

This feels like Truffaut trying the same loose feeling that Godard brought to Breathless, as Jeanne Moreau unites two men in mutual love, playing with their feelings as freely as Raoul Coutard’s camera pivots around a landscape. As Catherine, Moreau is of course the centre of attention here, and the film attracted a lot of attention at the time it was made for its affront towards bourgeois morality when it comes to love. I’m not exactly sure it holds up in every respect, but it feels remarkably unfussed by its protagonists shacking up with one another. What elevates it are the performances and the sense of freedom and fun enjoyed by the director and his camera, not to mention the finely judged score that keeps the action constantly moving forward even as the characters seem to be dwelling in their own little worlds. I never really feel as if Catherine is much more than a muse to the men who are, after all, the titular characters, and quite aside from hiding behind a fake moustache in the scene that gives the film its cover art (at least for the Criterion release), her love feels deeply inconsistent at times, as if imagined by each of the men in turn, and by the director. Still, I feel like her performance, in its irrepressibility, reaches beyond this framework directly to the viewer, and as such it earns its place in cinematic history.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut; Writers Truffaut and Jean Gruault (based on the novel by Henri-Pierre Roché); Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner, Henri Serre, Sabine Haudepin; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 15 December 2019 (and before that on VHS at home, Wellington, November 1999).

Criterion Sunday 278: L’eclisse (1962)

Antonioni, I feel, made a lot of films about boredom, or about people being bored, and it’s easy to slip into imagining they are boring films (to some, they are of course), but I love the moods he creates. Monica Vitti and Alain Delon slip into and around the frame in an almost endlessly reconfigurable number of ways, stopping only to look disconsolately off screen (and that’s how Vitti ends her screen performance in this film, last of a loosely-themed trilogy by Antonioni). She doesn’t seem to want love, or finds it boring perhaps, and then falls into the orbit of Delon’s stockbroker, whom she is equally unpassionate towards until near the end. Like the character halfway through L’avventura (1960), here all the film’s characters seem to disappear just before the end, as the world they’ve created continues, silent and without passion, in the places they have lived their lives and plan to keep living them, the water ebbing away from a rusted barrel, while the architecture blankly comments on the streets below. It’s a rondo of sorts between these two characters, and a movement through dead space, beautiful but always ultimately suffused with a boredom that emanates not just from the characters but from those around them, as if it’s the state of the universe.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michelangelo Antonioni; Writers Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, Elio Bartolini and Ottiero Ottieri; Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo; Starring Monica Vitti, Alain Delon, Francisco Rabal; Length 126 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 16 October 2002 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 23 November 2019).

Criterion Sunday 277: My Own Private Idaho (1991)

It’s time for me to try something with my regular weekly Criterion Collection posts. I’m not changing the way they look or anything fundamental, but I have decided I am going to try to post two a week (both on Sunday, morning and evening). After all I’m fairly sure Criterion are adding around four new films every month, so it’s not looking like I’m going to catch up with them anytime soon. Therefore, I’ve taken the difficult decision to double my output on this, which means I’m going to need to watch twice as many each week if I’m to keep up. Therefore we’ll see how long this period of double-posting lasts.


It’s an odd one this, a film from the burgeoning independent gay cinema that was starting to move towards the mainstream, but looping in references (and sometimes entire speeches) from Shakespeare’s histories, without very much blurring between these two disparate registers. Its chief protagonists are Mike (River Phoenix), a directionless street hustler in Portland Oregon, who meets Scott (Keanu Reeves), who has chosen a life of hedonistic pleasure in defiance of his wealthy father, and both end up on a sort of road trip, though much of the trip seems to be more inside these characters’ heads. A Falstaffian figure is provided in the shape of Bob (William Richert), who acts like the boss of this loose coalition of street denizens, though beyond that it’s difficult to clearly set out what happens in the film given its fragmentary narrative structure, somewhat akin to the narcolepsy that afflicts Mike periodically. However, there’s enough looseness to allow small roles to odd and amusing characters, not least of all Udo Kier’s Hans, who does a dance with a lamp that’s probably the film’s comedy highlight. Elsewhere there are soliloquies and deadpan line readings that impart a rather glorious bathos to the proceedings, discursive as they are.

(Written on 8 February 2016.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Gus Van Sant (loosely based on the plays Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V by William Shakespeare); Cinematographers John J. Campbell and Eric Alan Edwards; Starring River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, William Richert; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 6 February 2016.

Top Hat (1935)

Wrapping up my several weeks catching up on my favourite films I saw for the first time in 2019, is this Astaire-Rogers musical, generally considered to be their best collaboration and certainly the most famous of them all. It’s a delightful attempt to recreate some of the Lubitsch touch (with some uncredited inspiration taken from Hungarian plays of the era, which fits in with the European-ness of the whole undertaking), and it moves along with gay abandon.


I do not love a mistaken identity plot, and it was probably a tired device even in 1935, but somehow this film manages to make it almost acceptable, though it remains a source of great frustration every time someone fails to say their name and the film gets into some huge contortions trying to keep the whole thing going. And yet! Of course it is delightful, for there is dancing. Fred Astaire plays Jerry, a professional dancer, something of a big name who finds himself in (some weird cinematic form of) London to star in Horace (Edward Everett Horton)’s stage show, a dramatic conceit that’s quickly forgotten about when… Jerry falls in love with Ginger Rogers’s Dale (not playing a character who is a professional dancer, just a character who happens to be really good at dancing) and must fly off to (an even weirder cinematic soundstage recreation of) Venice to woo her. There are all kinds of misunderstandings wrapped up with this convoluted plot, among which one that leads to Horace being punched in the face by his wife Madge (Helen Broderick, who is, by the way, a comic highlight along with Erik Rhodes as the archly self-regarding Beddini) but the writing keeps it all tight and moving along swiftly. Ginger’s dresses are also particularly on point, and the whole thing is, to use a term which was then used rather more casually (but nonetheless aptly), a gay affair. Nice to see, too, that Eric Blore’s valet Bates uses they/them pronouns.

Top Hat film posterCREDITS
Director Mark Sandrich; Writer Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott; Cinematographer David Abel; Starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton, Helen Broderick, Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 30 December 2019.