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 232: A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) and 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

浮草物語 Ukikusa Monogatari (A Story of Floating Weeds, 1934)
Director Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Tadao Ikeda 池田忠雄 and Ozu; Cinematographer Hideo Shigehara 茂原英朗; Starring Takeshi Sakamoto 坂本武, Choko Iida 飯田蝶子, Rieko Yagumo 八雲理恵子; Length 86 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 30 September 2018.

浮草 Ukigusa (Floating Weeds, 1959)
Director Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Kogo Noda 野田高梧 and Ozu; Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa 宮川一夫; Starring Ganjiro Nakamura 中村鴈治郎, Machiko Kyo 京マチ子, Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子; Length 119 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 October 2018 (and originally on laserdisc at the university library, Wellington, October 1997).

Criterion Sunday 196: Hiroshima mon amour (1959)

When people think about pretentious French movies, I think this is somehow the Platonic ideal they’re thinking about, an ur-text of reflective voiceover, alienated detachment and pain, the possibility (and impossibility perhaps) of cultural rapprochement following imperialist aggression, opening as it does with the conjoining of bodies under the ash of nuclear fallout. It is, as has been far more eloquently expressed by commentators far more engaged than I am, about the complex interplay of memory and desire, but it is also aggressively modernist in its construction and the way it engages with the viewer, so unlikely to be for all tastes. I first watched it 20 years ago, and I’ll watch it in another 20, and I can only hope to catch up with what it’s doing by then.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alain Resnais; Writer Marguerite Duras; Cinematographers Michio Takahashi 高橋通夫 and Sacha Vierny; Starring Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada 岡田英次; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 February 2018 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 1997).

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.

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

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


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Grigori Chukhrai Григо́рий Чухра́й; Writers Valentin Yezhov Валентин Ежов and Chukhrai; Cinematographers Vladimir Nikolayev Владимир Николаев and Era Savelyeva Эра Савельева; Starring Vladimir Ivashov Влади́мир Ивашо́в, Zhanna Prokhorenko Жанна Прохоренко; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 2 April 2017.

Criterion Sunday 84: お早よう Ohayo (Good Morning, 1959)

A late film by Yasujiro Ozu which is set amongst a small group of neighbours in a Tokyo suburb and treats childhood with a light, comic touch. The plot, such as it is, has the kids of one family refusing to speak after being scolded by their father (Chishu Ryu) for going round to a neighbour’s home to watch sumo wrestling on TV. In a fit of pique after being refused this modern convenience — their father inveighs against its stupefying effect — the kids reject the language of their parents and what they see as all the stupid meaningless banalities of conversation like “hello”, “goodbye”, “thank you” and of course “good morning”. Meanwhile, gossip spreads amongst the neighbours when the local residents’ association dues haven’t been paid, as first one and the another member of this tight-knit community is suspected of having absconded with the cash. It may depict a long-vanished world in which doors are always open and people can pop round to one another’s home to chat, but at the heart is the tension brought about by the modern consumerist world and its increasing technologisation. The gossip centres largely on the purchase of a washing machine, while the TV also seems to divide the families. Things never get too dark –- everyone converses with a fixed and ready smile, even when you suspect they’re pretty angry, and indeed entire conversations proceed with a surface level of the kind of banality that the kids hate, even as other feelings are being expressed. The comedy is provided by the kids, and for all Ozu’s austere reputation, there’s a recurring farting game that consistently goes wrong for one of the kids.

Criterion Extras: Another very basic edition, with only the written notes and nothing on the disc, though it’s as fine a transfer as ever of this rare Ozu colour film. (However, since this review was written there’s been a new Blu-ray release with more extras so I shall update at some point when I watch it.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Kogo Noda 野田高梧 and Ozu; Cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta 厚田雄春; Starring Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子, Chishu Ryu 笠智衆; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at my mother’s flat (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 15 March 2015.

Criterion Sunday 48: Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus, 1959)

Black Orpheus occupies an odd little space in the corner of film culture. Primarily a French film, albeit one filmed and set in Rio de Janeiro, it came out in the first flush of excitement around the French nouvelle vague, and went on to win the Palme d’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival (admittedly the Cannes organisers weren’t particularly enamoured about the new young voices threatening to up-end their nation’s cinematic traditions). It’s essentially a one-hit wonder (neither its director nor its stars ever went on to create any other films which are particularly remembered), and gained great success as a colourful piece of exotica enlivening the dour European cinema landscape of the era, and this is probably how it should be contextualised now. It’s certainly not a particularly progressive film, and though it focuses on black characters — itself something worth celebrating — they are portrayed with a somewhat colonialising attitude as simple, brightly-attired and constantly dancing with a joie de vivre in the face of (aestheticised) poverty. That said, it’s also undeniably an enjoyable film for exactly these reasons, reworking the Greek myths with its story of Orfeu (Breno Mello) who is engaged to be married but falls in love with the exotic Eurídice (Marpessa Dawn, herself an American by way of France). Things all get pointedly mythic towards the end, but in the meantime there’s plenty of scenes of their pretty little hilltop favelas, not to mention sequences set at Rio’s carnival. If it’s an odd little dead end of cinema history, it’s at least a rhythmic one.

Criterion Extras: There are short French interviews from the period with director Marcel Camus and, a few years later, star Marpessa Dawn, rare chances to hear them in their own words. There are also featurettes narrated by experts about the history of bossanova music, and the way the film is situated within Brazilian society (it’s not considered particularly reflective, unsurprisingly enough).

More substantial is the feature-length documentary made for French television, À la recherche d’Orfeu Negro (Looking for Black Orpheus, 2005, dir. René Letzgus/Bernard Tournois). It starts out seeming as if it’s going to be a fairly straightforward talking heads number, featuring interviews with surviving cast and crew members, including star Breno Mello. However it soon widens out into more of a look at the film in the context of Brazilian music and musical celebration, settling into a laidback series of song recitations recalling the film and atmospheric shots of Rio preparing for the carnival. Some of the film’s attitudes are critiqued, but mostly there’s a warmth on display, as a number of the original settings are revisited. Without being overly didactic, it’s an interesting companion piece to the movie.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Marcel Camus; Writers Camus, Vinicius de Moraes and Jacques Viot; Cinematographer Jean Bourgoin; Starring Breno Mello, Marpessa Dawn; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 9 August 2015.

The Crimson Kimono (1959)

Samuel Fuller is known for his punchy dialogue and scenarios in films like Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss (not to mention a clutch of films based on his World War II experiences), a holdover from his early days as a hard-nosed journalist on the city beat. So any concerns one might have about the social-problem trappings of The Crimson Kimono, with its ready-made racy poster headlines (interracial romance!), are avoided by Fuller’s deft script. Fuller proves himself to be quite far ahead of the times in allowing his Japanese-American cop hero Joe (James Shigeta) to be the lead, to love the girl (Victoria Shaw), and to avoid any narrative punishment for either. That’s not to say it doesn’t deal with issues of racism and discrimination, just that they’re handled in a much less muckraking way than you might expect. There’s also plenty of the exploitative thrills from the kind of seedy underworld setting so beloved of Fuller, but with Shigeta’s sensitive characterisation and some fine cinematography, this is a particularly vivid effort.

The Crimson Kimono film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Samuel Fuller; Cinematographer Sam Leavitt; Starring James Shigeta, Glenn Corbett, Victoria Shaw; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Tuesday 23 June 2015.

The Ranown Cycle of Westerns

Strictly speaking, the ‘Ranown Film’ credit applies to only two films (Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station), but it’s generally extended to refer to the cycle of six (or sometimes seven) Westerns directed over a five year period by Budd Boetticher, produced by Harry Joe Brown and starring Randolph Scott (the latter names combining for the production credit). I haven’t seen 1959’s Westbound (a contract picture for Warner Bros. that Scott was tied to, and which Boetticher directed though didn’t personally consider part of the cycle), but certainly the other six combine to create a singular body of work. They’re united not just by their director, producer and leading man, but by their common shooting location in California’s Alabama Hills, and their themes — generally speaking, they’re about men and the manifestations (and perhaps, if we’re being generous, limitations) of masculinity. For these are very much manly films, though there are women in them (and some strong supporting roles at that, particularly Gail Russell in Seven Men from Now and Nancy Gates in Comanche Station). Indeed, “A Man Can Do That” is the subtitle of the somewhat patchy documentary about Boetticher included as an extra on the boxset of the latter five films, and much of the dialogue has that kind of laconic old-fashioned ring to it, along the lines of “A man gets to thinking…” that emphasise the hero’s status as a lone outsider forging his own way in a tough frontier country. No doubt some of this comes from Boetticher’s own interests and upbringing, manifested by his fascination with bullfighting (a subject he returned to in a number of his other films), but this is an enduring trope of a genre that has periodically returned to popularity since, but was still in its most classical phase in the 1950s, prior to the revisionism of the latter part of the 60s.

Continue reading “The Ranown Cycle of Westerns”

Criterion Sunday 5: Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959)

In the eyes of many people — not least those defiant eyes in the freeze-frame at the end — this film was what kicked off the French New Wave. Certainly its star Jean-Pierre Léaud came to be a poster boy for the movement, reappearing not only as the same character (Antoine Doinel) in subsequent Truffaut films, but as a leading man for a number of other directors who would get their start at the same time (notably Godard in some of his more experimental dissections of film form, for example 1967’s Week End). It tracks the aforementioned Antoine, a troubled youth who rebels against unfeeling teachers and a lumpen proletarian home life. Like many Nouvelle Vague films, there’s little in the plot that’s groundbreaking — it follows familiar coming-of-age paths (though not to the same extent that Godard’s break-out work À bout de souffle cleaved to well-worn generic conventions) — but what remains fresh is the vigour of its vision and its feeling towards its protagonist. It sides with Antoine against establishment forces just as the Nouvelle Vague took on the cinéma de papa of their conservative forebears. I personally prefer Godard’s bold formal provocations, but Truffaut has a warmth of feeling that is of a piece with the other early Criterion selections, many of which exhibit an unflashy generosity and kindness of spirit towards powerless protagonists set apart somewhat from their society. If Renoir is an earlier master of such feeling, then Truffaut is his spiritual heir.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut; Writers Truffaut and Marcel Moussy; Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, January 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 26 October 2014).