Criterion Sunday 531: The Docks of New York (1928)

Sternberg’s last surviving silent film reaches a feverish peak that he would sustain over his next run of sound films starring Marlene Dietrich. It conjures the atmosphere of the titular location, beautifully using light and shadow, smoke and fog, and gliding camerawork. The actors are pretty great too, with George Bancroft giving his ship’s stoker character, Bill, a burly menace softened by his evident warmth of feeling towards Betty Compson’s suicidal prostitute Mae. There’s a generosity towards both characters, a lack of moral judgement, and the drama is in whether Bill will overcome his compulsion to fulfil the manly archetype he seems to hold of the sweaty stoker committed to his backbreaking labour, and whether Mae is willing to accept the possibility of a better life for herself. It’s all fairly compact and stays focused on the poetic evocation of this setting, doing a beautiful job of capturing what ultimately is a romance — and a hopeful one at that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writer Jules Furthman (from the story “The Dock Walloper” by John Monk Saunders); Cinematographer Harold Rosson; Starring George Bancroft, Betty Compson; Length 75 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 7 March 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, July 2000).

Criterion Sunday 519: کلوزآپ ، نمای نزدیک Kluzap, Nema-ye Nazdik (Close-Up, 1990)

I do love the late Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s works, and this isn’t even my favourite of his. It is however, the film that, perhaps more even than his celebrated Koker trilogy (the first of which pre-dates this film), shows the power of his craft. Once again he approaches a real-life incident but loops in so many layers of storytelling that it’s unclear where documentary ends and fiction begins. Perhaps there is no truth, or perhaps it is all true: there’s a court sequence that seems like it must be unmediated reality but that itself feels like a construct (the grainier image hinting at some more ‘truthful’ technique, like that video-shot sequence at the end of Taste of Cherry, but then there’s also an abundance of very prominent camera equipment, lights and boom operators, that moves us away from cinéma vérité). There are also sequences which must surely be reconstructions, but the classical filmmaking style gives the impression of being there, such that you have to catch yourself occasionally. Is our lead character Hossein Sabzian a foolish figure, a grifter out to make a buck, or is he the one ultimately being conned? You could make an argument for any of these, and all are possible within Kiarostami’s film. Ultimately this is a film asking where the truth lies, and certainly in Close-Up — as perhaps, we are led to believe, in all filmmaking — there is truth and there are lies.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This is an excellent release for those who love Kiarostami because you get an entire early feature film as a bonus extra, The Traveller (1974), which is claimed in some sources to be his debut feature although it appears from others to be his second film (the first was an hour long, which may be where the confusion lies). In any case, like many of his early short films, this focuses on kids and football. A boy in a small town loves it to the exclusion of his schoolwork and is focused on getting to see the national team play in the capital Tehran. Thereupon he embarks on a series of ruses (mostly of dubious morality) to get the money to go. You can see Kiarostami’s indebtedness to Italian neorealism here, but there’s a lot of what would later become his familiar style present also. It ends in an almost shockingly abrupt way, but it works, especially when we consider its production by a childhood education institute — though there’s nothing overtly didactic about the script (aside from an amusing scene where he’s trying to do some maths, then promptly skips his maths lesson).
  • Another extra is Close-Up, Long Shot (1996, dir. Moslem Mansouri/Mahmoud Chokrollahi), a 44 minute video-shot companion piece that revisits Hossein Sabzian some years after he’d been the focus of Close-Up. With his greying hair (he’d made a reference in the earlier film to dyeing it black) and time to reflect, he cuts a quite different figure from the slightly foolish and diffident man of Kiarostami’s film — suggesting yet another layer on top of those presented in Close-Up of how truth has been manipulated. Certainly Sabzian does feel here — and expresses it with some eloquence — as if he was the one being conned ultimately, and if his story isn’t exactly triumphant, he at least has his wits about him (though sadly he died 10 years later). The filmmakers of this documentary give a sense of his life and family, talking to his friends, and it’s an interesting extra piece of what was already a multi-faceted cinematic puzzle.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی‎; Cinematographer Ali Reza Zarrindast زرین‌دست علیرضا; Starring Hossain Sabzian حسین سبزیان, Mohsen Makhmalbaf محسن مخملباف; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 12 April 2022 (and earlier, probably at home on VHS, Wellington, early-2000s).

مسافر Mosafer (The Traveller, 1974)
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی‎; Cinematographer Firooz Malekzadeh فیروز ملک‌زاده; Starring Hassan Darabi حسن دارابی; Length 71 minutes.

Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Monday 5 June 2017.

Criterion Sunday 516: Stagecoach (1939)

It’s pretty difficult to watch any classic movie with fresh eyes and I can’t pretend that I did that here. It’s a film I’ve seen before screened in a film class, and it has that patina of ‘classic’ that is pretty difficult to move past at times, especially as it’s been emulated so often in succeeding years, such that it’s difficult in my mind for me to think about old Westerns without thinking about a bunch of characters sharing a coach across dangerous frontier territory controlled by Native American raiding parties. That last part is of course the bit that has aged the least well, and the most I can say for it is that at least the Native Americans aren’t played by white guys in heavy makeup, a small consolation for what is still a pretty thankless part of old Westerns. However, that central chamber drama between the various passengers is played out remarkably well, and John Wayne still looks young and fresh-faced as a ne’er-do-well looking to reform himself and settle down. John Ford was a veteran director even by 1939, and he controls it all beautifully well, without flashiness but with plenty of clear vision as to what’s most effective on the screen. Well worth watching again, and perhaps I’ll try and see this on a big screen before another 20 years passes.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Ford; Writer Dudley Nichols (based on the short story “The Stage to Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox); Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Claire Trevor, John Wayne, George Bancroft, Andy Devine, Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 13 March 2022 (and earlier on VHS at university, Wellington, May 2000).

Criterion Sunday 512: Vivre sa vie: film en douze tableaux (aka My Life to Live, 1962)

I have of course seen this Godard film many times before (and written about it far more eloquently in the past than I can muster now) but it may be my favourite of Godard’s oeuvre. It limns the concerns of the contemporary 1960s world to something self-consciously archaic in cinema, using intertitles (the chapter headings for this most structural of films, composed as the subtitle says, in 12 tableaux), gorgeous black-and-white close-ups of Anna Karina’s face (not to mention the back of her head), and of course those images of Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. But beyond that, it’s a film that deals with his eternal theme of capitalism, using the figure of Karina’s Nana as a way into a morally murky world. Nobody really ends up in a good place — shades of Breathless at the end — but the story of Nana’s falling into prostitution as a line of work and then into love (not a line of work) is almost sidelined by an aesthetic interest in the image. Indeed it’s very easy to miss the film’s ostensible plot, but also very easy (and equally pleasurable) just to look at the film as a series of tableaux vivants.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Anna Karina; Length 83 minutes.

Seen at university library (VHS), Wellington, October 1998 and June 2000 (later on DVD at home, London, Wednesday 14 August 2013, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Monday 7 February 2022).

Criterion Sunday 507: Bigger Than Life (1956)

Nick Ray has no shortage of great movies in the 1950s especially but this one feels like his most distilled statement. On the surface it’s a social problem film, about a man addicted to painkillers, but in some ways that just feels like a convenient excuse for Ray to lay out all the ills of conformist 50s domesticity, as James Mason’s underpaid schoolteacher starts letting loose about all the big shibboleths: the stranglehold of the church, the stagnancy of the nuclear family, and in a scene that has scarcely aged in 65 years, the political correctness and cosseting of education. Of course, we’re hardly expected to go along with him, and his single-minded destructiveness about everything around him does lead him down the path of murderous semi-religious incoherence, but along the way the film throws out broadsides against all the institutions that bind society together and leaves everyone’s happiness hanging at the end with a resolution that doesn’t really deep-down seem to resolve anything. Because unlike in a TV sitcom of the kind this film seems to be satirising, when you’ve opened up the very foundational blocks of western culture to question, it’s very hard to pack that Pandora’s box all away and pretend that it’s all happy families once again. There’s a brutality to this film that’s difficult to take at times because it feels so very angry, but it hits the marks it’s going for, I think, in the unhinged melodrama it offers.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nicholas Ray; Writers Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum (based on The New Yorker article “Ten Feet Tall” by Berton Roueché); Cinematographer Joseph MacDonald; Starring James Mason, Barbara Ray, Walter Matthau, Christopher Olsen; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at the NFT, London, Monday 8 December 2003 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Friday 18 February 2022).

Criterion Sunday 505: Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

I guess the Tokyo Story comparisons are obvious — it clearly is an inspiration on that film (Ozu loved his American melodramas, as is clear enough from film posters that show up in his early films) — although stylistically it’s rather different of course, but it hits just as hard in many ways. There’s a lightly comedic way it has of setting up its characters and their situations, and then when the families get to fussing and arguing, it could be straight out of 50s Sirk or 70s Fassbinder in the bitter undercurrents, the glances shared between the elderly mother’s son and daughter-in-law, the wearied sighs and desperate attempts to shift the burden of care amongst one another. But actually it’s the kindness that strangers and even sometimes family show one another that makes it most difficult to take, because nobody here is trying to be horrible or difficult, and the way the elderly couple at the film’s centre are forced apart is almost inevitable once it begins. They do get one last chance to revisit their youth and their love, but by the time the train trip beckons, there’s an overwhelming sorrow that puts it firmly among even the Criterion releases that precede it (films like Germany Year Zero and Hunger). Somehow even the sentimentality and humour makes it even more bleakly relatable, because tomorrow is always coming, and at an ever faster pace.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Leo McCarey; Writer Viña Delmar (based on the play by Helen Leary and Noah Leary, itself based on the novel The Years Are So Long by Josephine Lawrence); Cinematographer William C. Mellor; Starring Beulah Bondi, Victor Moore, Thomas Mitchell, Fay Bainter; Length 92 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 6 February 2022.

Criterion Sunday 503: Lola Montès (1955)

This is one of those grand European follies (like Les Amants du Pont-Neuf in more recent times, perhaps) which burned up money in its production and then failed spectacularly at the box office, but it’s the last film by the great director Max Ophüls and if it’s a failure, it’s a spectacular and beautiful one, immaculately staged and choreographed. Of course, as a film, it’s not a failure at all, but perhaps it just didn’t suit the tastes of the mid-1950s audience. It’s set a hundred years earlier, around the time of the revolutions of 1848, and tells a story of a courtesan and (apparently fairly indifferent) dancer known primarily for her liaisons with rich and powerful men, such is the way of that era’s stardom. Martine Carol in the title role is a glamorous presence but, when seen from the vantage point of her later years performing in a circus, a curiously voiceless one, as the ringmaster Peter Ustinov puts most of her words into her mouth. I don’t think that’s a failure of acting, though: if she feels underwhelming, it’s because her life has pushed her to this, and the flashbacks in which her story is told find her with more agency and a more vibrant presence. But acting aside this is a film peculiarly constructed in the staging and shooting, as beautifully framed widescreen images are composed, and the emotional movement of the story is as evident from the camerawork as from the screenplay or acting. Undoubtedly a film to lose oneself in on the big screen, it’s one of cinema’s great films by one of the medium’s finest directors.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Max Ophüls; Writers Ophüls and Annette Wademant (based on the novel La Vie extraordinaire de Lola Montès by Cécil Saint-Laurent); Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Martine Carol, Peter Ustinov, Anton Walbrook, Will Quadflieg, Oskar Werner; Length 115 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Sunday 30 July 2000 (as well as earlier on laserdisc at the university, Wellington, April 1998, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Friday 7 January 2022).

Criterion Sunday 501: Paris, Texas (1984)

The Criterion Collection had just released Wim Wenders’s other big 1980s feature film Wings of Desire before this one, and though Wenders had garnered a fair amount of attention for his 1970s German road movies, I think it’s Paris, Texas that remains his most well-loved. And it would be easy for me to try and dismiss this as I wanted to dismiss Wings of Desire but both have a depth and complexity that is more than their slightly sentimental stories of family and healing might on the surface suggest. Here we have the poise and emptiness of the desert setting, the mysterious entrance of Harry Dean Stanton’s Travis and the unfolding of his story. Familial love is important here — the love of his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) for Travis, the love of Travis for his son Hunter (Hunter Carson, the screenwriter’s son), and even the love he seems to have, however fleetingly, for his ex-partner Jane (played by the much younger Nastassja Kinski). The relationship they had is only really ever hinted at — and it seems like it must have been a strange, strained one, possibly one rooted in drugs and nihilism — but the story becomes far more one about the child they had together and what is best for that child, and this is the moral quandary that Travis is dealing with. Wenders of course, along with cinematographer Robby Müller, do a beautiful job of framing this quest, and a climactic scene is almost perfectly blocked between Stanton and Kinski. But beyond the technical credits the acting is exactly right for the setting, and so the film remains iconic almost 40 years on.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wim Wenders; Writers L. K. Kit Carson and Sam Shepard; Cinematographer Robby Müller; Starring Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell, Hunter Carson, Nastassja Kinski, Aurore Clément; Length 147 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 30 January 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 2000).

Criterion Sunday 498: Paisà (Paisan, 1946)

This film of Rossellini’s is less contained than his first in the “War Trilogy” that started with Rome, Open City. After all, it tells six separate stories rather than the one, across the length of Italy in the period leading up to the end of the war, as the Americans and British are found fighting the Germans on Italian soil. We see stories of partisans but also of women and children — whether living in poverty and desperation (as in the second and third stories), or helping out on the frontlines (as in the first and fourth) — and their encounters with the Allies. It’s not a film of hope, as there’s plenty of bleakness, but it feels like a series of stories that is trying to say something about the experience of war rather than (perhaps more usual) propaganda-friendly stories of triumph against adversity, or victory against fascism. In most of these stories, there is no victory because there aren’t really any good or bad guys, there’s just the struggle to survive when there are so few opportunities, and then in the fifth story there’s a different struggle that seems entirely abstracted from the war, of a group of Catholic monks whose primary interest is in ensuring the souls of the non-Catholic Americans can be saved. There’s a bit of humour in it, but a wealth of humanity, and even if the individual stories can sometimes seem a little bit moralistic, as a whole it offers a sweeping view of wartime struggle that it may be my favourite of his works.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roberto Rossellini; Writers Sergio Amidei, Klaus Mann, Federico Fellini, Marcello Pagliero, Alfred Hayes and Vasco Pratolini; Cinematographer Otello Martelli; Starring Carmela Sazio, Dots Johnson, Maria Michi, Gar Moore, Harriet Medin, Renzo Avanzo, William Tubbs; Length 126 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 25 January 2022.

Criterion Sunday 497: Roma città aperta (Rome Open City, 1945)

I’ve seen this before, but I must have underestimated it. When you’re studying film and told that something is a classic, you can’t help but want to react against it, find it a bit boring, especially when you’re young. In fact, I’ve seen it twice and don’t recall much about it, but I think I wasn’t coming to it in the proper frame of mind. It practically invents the “neo-realist” style of filmmaking, shooting on the streets (in a Nazi-occupied city no less), telling a story with next to no budget, but with some great actors and some evocative faces. In fact, it’s pretty great, as indeed everyone knows, and not just for its technical achievements. The blend of heartrending tragedy (I mean, it’s wartime; most everyone dies) and moments of levity, like the priest earnestly turning away a statue of a monk from the naked bottom of another statue, or playing football with a bunch of kids. Moments like that make it all the tougher to see the same characters in much different circumstances. It’s about resistance to fascism, it’s about surviving in an occupied city, but it’s also about transcending that spiritually. I’m not even sure the church had a particularly great record during the war in terms of resistance, but these are the things you want to believe, that there were those who had a more ennobled spirit. It makes the difficult times worth bearing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roberto Rossellini; Writers Sergio Amidei and Federico Fellini; Cinematographer Ubaldo Arata; Starring Aldo Fabrizi, Anna Magnani, Marcello Pagliero; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at the National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 22 August 2001 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, October 2000, but most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Tuesday 18 January 2022).