Criterion Sunday 468: “Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé”

The Criterion Collection may generally be known for championing the great auteurs, but they also do some rather left-field choices, whether that’s Michael Bay (albeit early on in their existence; I’m not sure they’d give his films much time now), weird low-budget 50s sci-fi and now this set of short films about animals, which somewhat defy any straightforward description. The first disc presents his “popular films”, which is to say those made for the public (and not academics).

There’s a certain wonder to the first, Hyas and Stenorhynchus (1927), about little weird algae-like creatures with their spindly spines. The photography is obviously not as advanced as now, or even Painlevé’s later films, but there’s something luminous about the grainy, ethereal monochrome of these aquatic close-ups that has a magic to it. Sea Urchins (1954) has a lot of the same tentacles and marine weirdness but is somehow slightly unsettling, perhaps from the pulsating 1950s electronic score or just the better closer photography available. It’s co-directed with Painlevé’s partner, Geneviève Hamon, like a lot of his later films and sadly she seems not to get mentioned much in writing about him and his work. Clearly, though, both had a fascination with jellyfish, or with the category of weird gelatinous and tentacle-y things, because it feels like a number of his films deal with them. How Some Jellyfish Are Born (1960) also shows an interest in some unusual methods of conception and birth, with perhaps some hints towards other orders of gender and sexuality in these creatures which could probably have been developed more.

One of his better works, and certainly the creature with which he’s most linked (given the set’s box art), The Sea Horse (1933) makes clear just how extremely weird these creatures are. Just watching them is like gazing upon some Ray Harryhausen stop motion animated monster, but in a cute sort of way, though maybe there’s a bit of Lovecraft to them. Certainly Painlevé gets much more into the reproduction here, with the males gestating the babies, and seeing the tiny little ones come out is so fascinating (though I could have used without the shock cut to them cutting a pregnant seahorse open, even if I recognise this is ultimately a scientific film). Anyway, this is the kind of thing that Painlevé excels at, the intersection of science and the oneiric, which is also where The Love Life of the Octopus (1967) seems to sit. Truly octopuses are the most terrifying of creatures. Slithering yet smart, and, like so many of Painlevé and Hamon’s scientific studies, they have many tentacles. This particular short sets up our subject before getting into reproduction, and that too is strange and creepy, with thousands of little octopuses swimming away from these loose threads of gestating eggs. I remain properly terrified by this animal.

Further short films continue their fascination. With Shrimp Stories (1964), the directors acknowledge how ridiculous shrimp look with an overtly comic introduction, before we get into these (once again) elaborately tentacled sea creatures. Well in the case of shrimp, less tentacles than waving antennae and frantically moving little feet. If Acera, or The Witches’ Dance (1972) were merely an excuse to orchestrate the delightful aquatic ‘dance’ of these tiny snail-like organisms, then that would be enough (they swirl about, all but hopping up and down), but we also discover their hermaphroditic reproductive rituals and the gestation of tiny new acera. The photography is luminous and, as ever, these animals are strangely compelling. Sadly Freshwater Assassins (1947), despite its title, just seems a little bit duller, more like the orthodox nature shows you might get on TV, with less of the ugly weirdness of his other animals, mostly being just bugs living and fighting under the water in a pond. In Sea Ballerinas (1956), though, there’s a sense of humour, with it ending on a brittle fish seemingly conducting an orchestra, but otherwise there’s a lot of tumbling, shuffling and crawling around.

Stepping away from the sea creatures to watch something far more abstract is Liquid Crystals (1978). This is in fact closer to a late Stan Brakhage film than the kind of natural science pieces Painlevé did earlier on. It’s beautiful, though, as is an earlier film about the blood-sucking vampire bat, The Vampire (1945), which contextualises it in a short history of entertainment before letting it loose on an unfortunate guinea pig. There’s the customary blend here of limpid beauty and a sense of mystery in the photography, an informative voiceover and the dull academic subject matter, but the first enlivens the latter. Back to the abstraction in Diatoms (1968), but partly because the creatures under the (literal) microscope here are single-celled algae-like things, of various shapes, floating around on their own or in colonies. I’m still not exactly clear what a diatom is or does but I certainly got an almost trippy vision of their lives.

The final film on the first disc, and the latest film collected in the set, is Pigeons in the Square (1982). Pigeons get all kinds of bad press, and though this (relatively long) short film has a comical edge to it, Painlevé comes from a science background so he’s not interested in adding to the negative propaganda about pigeons. They are by turns majestic, beautifully patterned, comically silly, strutting, hopping, fluttering and pecking. Sure some of the urban varieties are a bit bedraggled and their seduction attempts wouldn’t pass muster by human standards, but this film just enjoys watching pigeons, and I enjoyed watching this film.

The second disc starts with “early popular silent films”, some of his earliest works. There’s The Octopus (1927), which has sort of a structure, but is mostly just the octopus slinking around (because if there’s anything we learn from the first disc it’s that Jean Painlevé loves a tentacled sea creature). The fragile beauty to these silent films is exemplified by Sea Urchins (1928), a creature he returned to in the 1950s (on the first disc), with luminous oneiric cinematography and no sound to distract (even if I did put some music on). The urchins wave around but also move and burrow. One thing I could do without is watching one get cut open but I guess there is at least some scientific method here. I am, though, prompted to wonder if my response to these short films is related to how much I like the creatures rather than a dispassionate critique of the filmmaking. I mean we may all know and love a seahorse, and even have opinions on octopuses, but what’s a Daphnia (1928)? Still for all its tiny bug like size — and there’s some serious magnification happening here — there’s even a bit of drama when the hydra comes along. A lovely little film.

Under the heading “silent research films”, there are a couple of Painlevé’s scientific shorts included and you can see immediately the difference from his “popular films”. The Stickleback’s Egg (1925) deals with a less than thrilling subject (microscopic organisms) and is pretty dry. There’s some great close-up photography that must have been very advanced for the time, and being silent I was able to put on a jaunty score, but this is mainly interesting as a comparison. Meanwhile Experimental Treatment of a Hemorrhage in a Dog (1930) is only four minutes, and exemplifies his specifically scientific focus in the silent era, but I really did not need to see this. The dog was fine after the procedure the film is clear to point out and that’s good, but it’s pretty graphic.

Unlike his more famous short films about animals (often underwater tentacled ones), Jean Painlevé also made a series of films dealing with various abstract concepts, here collected as “Films for La Palais de la Découverte”. The Fourth Dimension (1936) covers that idea, suggesting ways in which it could be understood, possibly as something beyond our own conception, something almost magical. It’s hard to really get to grips with it but Painlevé is serious and educational and it’s a lot to take in. More abstract scientific ideas are on show in The Struggle for Survival (1937) although this film is heavy on the text, which almost overwhelms the film with detail. He’s talking about population growth and certainly covers some ideas about it. Turning his cinematic attention to the Earth’s place in the universe is the subject of Voyage to the Sky (1937), which seems to conclude that in the grand vastness of space, we humans are almost ridiculously insignificant. It’s a rather bleak conclusion but nicely illustrated. Finally, Similarities Between Length and Speed (1937) is a rather abstruse short film on a topic I don’t really understand (which is to say, anything to do with mathematics). However, Jean Painlevé is an engaging filmmaker and tries to grapple seriously with his subject, which is about how bigger things aren’t exactly proportional.

Finally comes the single film under the heading “animation”, Bluebeard (1938), and it certainly a departure from Painlevé’s other films, being for a start not a scientific study of animals but instead a gloriously colourful claymation animated film about the bloodthirsty titular pirate, chopping off heads hither and yon. It’s all rather jolly and odd, and dark too and a fine way to round out the set.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

My custom on this blog has not been to give ratings to short films, so the list below is just of the films included in the order they are presented. However my favourite was probably The Sea Horse, with the two academic research works and the mathematics film as my least favourite.

Hyas et stenorinques (Hyas and Stenorhynchus, 1929) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Cinematographer André Raymond | Length 10 minutes.
Oursins (Sea Urchins, 1954) | Directors Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Cinematographer Claude Beausoleil | Length 11 minutes.
Comment naissent des méduses (How Some Jellyfish Are Born, 1960) | Directors Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 14 minutes.
Cristaux liquides (Liquid Crystals, 1978) | Directors Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 6 minutes.
L’Hippocampe ou ‘Cheval marin’ (The Seahorse, 1933) | Director Jean Painlevé | Cinematographer André Raymond | Length 14 minutes.
Les Amours de la pieuvre (The Love Life of the Octopus, 1967) | Directors Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 14 minutes.
Histoires de crevettes (Shrimp Stories, 1964) | Directors/Cinematographers Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 10 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 26 September 2021.

Acera ou Le Bal des sorcières (Acera, or The Witches’ Dance, 1972) | Directors/Cinematographers Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 13 minutes.
Le Vampire (The Vampire, 1945) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 9 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 27 September 2021.

Les Assassins d’eau douce (Freshwater Assassins, 1947) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 24 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 28 September 2021.

Les Danseuses de la mer (Sea Ballerinas, 1956) | Directors/Cinematographers Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 13 minutes.
Diatomées (Diatoms, 1968) | Director Jean Painlevé | Cinematographer Catherine Thiriot | Length 17 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 1 October 2021.

Les Pigeons du square (Pigeons in the Square, 1982) | Director Jean Painlevé | Cinematographer Vincent Berczi | Length 27 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 2 October 2021.

La Pieuvre (The Octopus, 1927) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 13 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 3 October 2021.

Les Oursins (Sea Urchins, 1928) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 10 minutes.
La Daphnie (Daphnia, 1928) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 9 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 7 October 2021.

L’Oeuf d’épinoche (The Stickleback’s Egg, 1925) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 26 minutes.
Traitement éxperimental d’une hémorragie chez le chien (Experimental Treatment of a Hemmorhage in a Dog, 1930) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 4 minutes.
La Quatrième dimension (The Fourth Dimension, 1936) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 10 minutes.
Images mathématiques de la lutte pour la vie (The Struggle for Survival, 1937) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 14 minutes.
Voyage dans le ciel (Voyage to the Sky, 1937) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 11 minutes.
Similitudes des longueurs et des vitesses (Similarities Between Length and Speed, 1937) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 10 minutes.
Barbe-Bleu (Bluebeard, 1938) [colour film] | Directors Jean Painlevé and René Bertrand | Length 13 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 10 October 2021.

Criterion Sunday 457: Magnificent Obsession (1954)

I don’t know enough about the career of German expatriate director Douglas Sirk to be certain, but this feels like the first film of his imperial phase of filmmaking, or at least an important milestone in defining that peculiar style of gaudily-coloured, stylistically heightened melodramas of the late-50s, often produced by Ross Hunter and starring Rock Hudson. It’s not to my mind the equal of All That Heaven Allows or Written on the Wind (or the monochrome Tarnished Angels) but it orchestrates a thrillingly tangled web of obsessions pretty well.

Jane Wyman plays Helen (or Mrs Phillips), a woman indirectly widowed due to wealthy playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson)’s misadventures, which prompts him to reform himself and, via a series of ridiculous plot contortions, win the love of Helen (sure) and restore her eyesight (don’t ask) by becoming a world-leading surgeon (look, okay, yes). To say that last half hour is a rush of absurdity heaped upon absurdity is hardly to deny the central power of the film as a full-throated melodrama, and indeed Sirk is attentive to the power differentials between characters (even if Helen’s eventual acceptance of her feelings toward Bob — who initially rather dubiously romances her under a different name while she’s blind — feels a little bit perfunctory). Still, if you like Sirk’s style, it’s all done with an assertive sense of style.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is the bonus disc dedicated to a presentation of John M. Stahl’s original 1935 adaptation of the same book (written by Sarah Y. Mason, Victor Heerman and George O’Neil, cinematography John J. Mescall, starring Robert Taylor and Irene Dunne). I’ve seen a few of Stahl’s films as director (mostly at Il Cinema Ritrovato) but still don’t feel I really have a grasp on him. That a handful of his films, like this one, were remade by Douglas Sirk is probably unfortunate to Stahl’s own standing but I just wonder if these early melodramas would ever make quite the same impression as Sirk’s gloriously overwrought 50s pieces. I’m certainly surprised at how much is similar in both, mostly all the ridiculous plot twists, but while this is a fine Irene Dunne performance, I am nevertheless somewhat underwhelmed by the sneering arrogant Bob Merrick of Robert Taylor, the poor man’s James Stewart as far as I can tell (both started around this time, so maybe 30s Hollywood just liked that look). Where Sirk brought the saturated colour and equally saturated string section, this plays a little more austerely, largely as a morality play of Taylor grappling with his conscience over the way things have played out and resolving to become a better man. A likeable film without the obvious hooks of Sirk’s but probably that’s down to me.
  • There are a couple of short ten-minute pieces paying tribute to this film (and Sirk) by Allison Anders and Kathryn Bigelow, both of which are effusive in their praise and interesting in terms of each’s own filmmaking, even if neither strikes one as particularly Sirkian.
  • The screenwriter Robert Blees also speaks a bit about his work on the film as the primary writer (there are a lot of credits, including the writers on Stahl’s own film) but clearly Blees was more attuned to what Sirk and his producer Ross Hunter wanted.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Douglas Sirk; Writers Robert Blees and Wells Root (based on the screenplay by Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman, itself based on the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas); Cinematographer Russell Metty; Starring Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Barbara Rush, Agnes Moorehead; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Sunday 1 August 1999 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Monday 30 August 2021).

Criterion Sunday 442: 二十四の瞳 Niju-shi no Hitomi (Twenty-Four Eyes, 1954)

It’s over two-and-a-half hours long, and it feels like a great Japanese epic of wartime defeat, humbling itself on the world stage, but yet it humanises the conflict effectively by focusing on a strongly anti-war teacher and her 12 young students, who grow up from little rascals in 1928 to fighting in the war by the end of the film. We never see any war action, but it’s all filtered through the teacher (Miss “Pebble” is her nickname for much of the film, played by Mikio Naruse’s favourite Hideko Takamine), with a strong heft of sentimentality in the musical cues — not one of those twenty-four eyes is dry at any point in the film, it sometimes seems. Still, it’s a lovely film, with wide vistas of the island they all live on, contrasted with close-ups of the children’s faces for maximum pathos. Despite it all being thickly laid on, it never feels overly manipulative: this is a story about loss and sadness, but also of people whose lives continue regardless, and about the value of life itself.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Keisuke Kinoshita 木下惠介; Cinematographer Hiroshi Kusuda 楠田浩之; Starring Hideko Takamine 高峰秀子, Chishu Ryu 笠智衆; Length 156 minutes.

Seen at Courthouse Cinema, London, Sunday 22 April 2018.

Criterion Sunday 386: 山椒大夫 Sansho Dayu (Sansho the Bailiff, 1954)

The Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi certainly was fond of a heartbreaking story of a family torn apart, often focusing on women who are placed under incredible strain, and that’s certainly the case here. Kinuyo Tanaka plays a mother whose husband is exiled and who finds herself forcibly separated from her children as she journeys to him. She is sent to work as a prostitute, while they grow up as slaves to the bailiff of the film’s title, and it is them that the film focuses on for much of its running time. Generically, it’s melodrama of the highest order, but of course Mizoguchi is hardly a sloppy director and there’s scarcely a shot or a moment that doesn’t build on the desperation of the situation, with a grace and beauty to the framings that’s at odds with the turmoil within the characters. This feels like the kind of film you have to live with for a while to get the most from, for while it has its undoubted bleakness, there’s a formal quality to the expression of sorrow that makes it almost reconstitutive. I really can’t place my finger on it, but I’ll want to see it again on the big screen.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Kenji Mizoguchi 溝口健二; Writers Fuji Yahiro 八尋不二 and Yoshikata Yoda 依田義賢 (based on the short story by Mori Ogai 森鴎外); Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa 宮川一夫; Starring Yoshiaki Hanayagi 花柳喜章, Kyoko Kagawa 香川京子, Kinuyo Tanaka 田中絹代, Eitaro Shindo 進藤英太郎; Length 124 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 3 January 2021 (and before that on VHS at home, Wellington, May 2000).

Two Early Films by Youssef Chahine: The Blazing Sun (1954) and Dark Waters (1956)

There’s an Algerian film called Papicha (2019) out in cinemas in the UK at the moment. I haven’t seen it yet, because I’m not exactly going out a lot, but I do mean to do so. Therefore, in honour of that I’m doing a North African cinema week, which will probably mostly be Tunisian and Egyptian films, because I’ve not seen many Algerian ones (and I covered one in my recent Global Cinema entry for the country). Turning to Egypt, I’ve covered Youssef Chahine’s films before, but he was responsible for bringing Omar Sharif to the screen. Sharif’s first two films for Chahine partnered him with Faten Hamama in the mid-1950s (though Chahine had made a few with Hamama before) and they have matching titles in the original, usually translated more literally as Struggle in the Valley and Struggle in the Pier. However, like many non-English language films in the period, distributors seem to have been fairly inconsistent and a variety of titles are attested. On Netflix they are The Blazing Sun and Dark Waters respectively (and that’s what I’ve used here), which have a more poetic ring perhaps, but either way both are full-blooded melodramas reminiscent of contemporary Hollywood productions.

Continue reading “Two Early Films by Youssef Chahine: The Blazing Sun (1954) and Dark Waters (1956)”

晩菊 Bangiku (Late Chrysanthemums, 1954)

This film by Mikio Naruse is a beautifully understated piece of work, one of the great achievements in post-war Japanese cinema. Usually I reserve Wednesdays each week for films directed by women; as my theme this week is the films of a male director I cannot do that. However, this film focuses solely on the lives of four women, and is written by women.


Another of Naruse’s lovely quiet films about people just living their lives, though it’s a few decades on from his first works, so it doesn’t start with an automobile accident (as many of those seemed to do). This tells of the lives of four former geishas, one of whom is a moneylender (Haruko Sugimura), with the others variously in debt to her. A couple of them have adult children, and lovers pass through town too, but it really does keep its focus very much on the women’s lives. Nothing melodramatic really happens: life passes; the kids move away; the lovers disappoint. But it is exquisite in its simplicity, which like many of Naruse’s films of this era was written by women (specifically Sumie Tanaka. based on writing by Fumiko Hayashi).

CREDITS
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writer Sumie Tanaka 田中澄江 (based on short stories by Fumiko Hayashi 林芙美子); Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子, Chikako Hosokawa 細川ちか子, Yuko Mochizuki 望月優子, Sadako Sawamura 沢村貞子; Length 101 minutes.
Seen on train from London to Brussels (DVD), Friday 1 June 2018.

山の音 Yama no Oto (Sound of the Mountain, 1954)

Mikio Naruse made three films in the year before this one, and I’m willing to bet at least one of those is equally brilliant, because he was very much on form this decade. A lot of his work was adapted from the writing of Fumiko Hayashi, but she is not the source for this one but rather the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Yasunari Kawabata, though it uses a lot of the same key cast as Naruse’s earlier film.


This is some film, one of Mikio Naruse’s finest, and I don’t want to attribute all of its success to one person, because it’s made with such sensitivity by everyone involved, but Setsuko Hara must be considered pretty central to that. Partly it’s the role she’s playing, a wife shunned by her husband (who is having an affair with a younger woman), but Hara is expert at making it not just a tragic account of this woman, but a far more rounded and nuanced portrait of familial relationships, in which Hara’s character is not to be pitied, but instead a really developed character whose motivations and actions cut against the expectations of her society and her family. I just find her every expression to be that little bit heartbreaking (not unlike in Tokyo Story, where she proved that sometimes smiling cheerfully is the saddest emotion of all). The film itself is framed by her father-in-law (So Yamamura), who is disappointed in his son (Ken Uehara) and just trying to understand Hara’s situation and consider what is best for her, which is why his reaction to news of her abortion is both so deeply felt and also so unusual in a film of this era. Surely a masterpiece of Japanese cinema, and I still have so many Naruse films yet to watch.

Sound of the Mountain film posterCREDITS
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writer Yoko Mizuki 水木洋子 (baed on the novel by Yasunari Kawabata 川端康成); Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Setsuko Hara 原節子, Ken Uehara 上原謙, So Yamamura 山村聰, Yoko Sugi 杉葉子; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 13 January 2019.

Criterion Sunday 271: Touchez pas au grisbi (aka Honour Among Thieves, 1954)

Jacques Becker’s Casque d’or a couple years earlier already feels like a generation away from this film (and admittedly does have a period setting), but where that may have been a tight narrative that set up every sequence and followed through with resolve, this somehow feels more like a meandering atmosphere piece. At length the plot does come out, and it revolves around the “loot” (grisbi) of the title, but more than being about a swindle gone wrong, it’s about ageing gangsters reckoning with their mortality. Chief among these is Jean Gabin, who made something of a comeback with this film after years in the wilderness. As Mr Max, he knows he’s getting old — and as if to emphasise this, director Becker has him getting ready for bed, in silk pyjamas brushing his teeth, or looking balefully into a mirror while pinching his chin fat. He surrounds himself with much younger and more glamorous women, as all of his compatriots seem to do (one of them is Jeanne Moreau), almost as if to stave off the effects of age, but they all know they’re headed into obsolescence, and they lash out with regularity against the women and the younger thugs (like the well-built Lino Ventura, the chief antagonist). There’s a brutishness to it, stylishly evoked with all kinds of looming dark shadows around every corner, but it all seems pathetic more than anything else: few of them really seem in control, though Max is more effective at projecting this than some of the others. It’s a film about feelings and sadness, couched in a gangster form, and has more than a hint of The Godfather (not least in the repeated musical motif, very redolent of Nino Rota’s work on that film).

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s another five minutes or so of the Cinéastes de notre temps: Jacques Becker (1967, dir. Claude de Givray) documentary about the director, with the excerpt focusing on this film, naturally. We hear a little bit from Lino Ventura as well as the screenwriter and the original author Albert Simonin, plus a brief appearance from Truffaut to speak about Becker’s influential style.
  • There’s are a few brief interviews with the stars, including one from 20 years later with Lino Ventura (Grisbi was his debut, but by this point he’s an established star), with the composer Jean Wiener focusing on the brief snippet of score that Becker preferred to use (though he’d written much more), and with actor Daniel Cauchy who has a small role as a young thug.
  • The only other extra is a trailer, four minutes of punchy action from the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Becker; Writers Becker and Maurice Griffe (based on the novel by Albert Simonin); Cinematographer Pierre Montazel; Starring Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura, René Dary, Jeanne Moreau; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 28 October 2019.

Criterion Sunday 219: La strada (1954)

Nights of Cabiria remains my favourite Fellini film, but of course Giulietta Masina was pretty great in everything she did with Fellini. Here she plays a wide-eyed naïf, but almost a caricature of that, so very ingenuous does she appear, so simple in manner and trusting in affect. Of course, the story takes her down some bleak narrative turns, as she becomes hitched to a travelling sideshow performer (Anthony Quinn, looking unwashed), and the film follows in the footsteps of that profession by itself becoming something of a picaresque journey narrative. It’s a little bit winding and sometimes goes down dead ends, but for the most part it is carried by its performances, as well as the simple generosity of the writers towards their characters.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Federico Fellini; Writers Fellini, Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano; Cinematographer Otello Martelli and Carlo Carlini; Starring Giulietta Masina, Anthony Quinn; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 June 2018.

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, Sunday 25 February, Sunday 4 March and Sunday 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.