Criterion Sunday 480: 人間の條件 Ningen no Joken (The Human Condition, 1959/1961)

I suspect part of the power of this film lies in its epic running time. This first of three instalments (sometimes called No Greater Love) is itself split into two parts, each with its own credits, so perhaps properly this is the first two parts of a six-part film. In any case, it tracks the life of one man during World War II, played by legend of Japanese cinema, Tatsuya Nakadai. Kaji is a bureaucrat who is posted to Manchuria to help run a mining operation staffed by indentured locals and captured prisoners of war. Already the film is gearing up to examine its major thematic question, which is whether it’s possible to act justly during a time of war. Certainly there’s no particular attempt to soften the edges of Japanese imperialist ambitions of the era, though Kaji continues to try and do the right thing and be an honourable man even when he has almost no agency or control over the suffering around him. His attempts to make reforms at the mine and to treat the workers fairly only drives a wedge between him and his superiors and causes him no end of trouble — and of course the situation he finds himself at the end of this first film is clearly not going to be the worst place he’ll end up. Kobayashi directs in stark black-and-white with plenty of fine directorial touches but this remains a sweeping epic of the sort that was prevalent in this era, all of which presumably owe something to the experience of the previous few decades: a grand statement on the big themes that elaborates on what it is to be just a single person against an enormous system designed to crush everything around it.

Continuing the story of the first two parts, the third and fourth chapters of this epic (called Road to Eternity) chart Kaji as he works as a private in the army, having been beaten down to this in the first film from his work as a mine overseer due to his attempt to show mercy and restraint. Here again his commitment to being a good person is again tested sorely, and again he finds himself at the sharp end of a brutal system of punishment and repression that doesn’t encourage positive behaviour or good soldiering and only rewards giving up one’s life in the futile pursuit of wartime ambition. There’s some lovely stuff here too, and a strong moral thread with Kaji attempting to navigate the constant ritual humiliations of the service, but this is still firmly within the mould of a grand historical epic, and how much you respond to it may depend on your love for the genre.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masaki Kobayashi 小林正樹; Writers Kobayashi, Zenzo Matsuyama 松山善三 and Koichi Inagaki 稲垣公一 (based on the novel by Junpei Gomikawa 五味川純平); Cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima 宮島義勇; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Michiyo Aratama 新珠三千代; Length 575 minutes (split into six parts in three films of 206 minutes, 178 minutes and 190 minutes).

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 19 November, Thursday 25 November and Saturday 27 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 478: L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961)

This film works at many levels, and while it’s certainly possible to say it confounds narrative understanding (because that’s partly what it’s trying to do), it’s also in some sense very straightforward: a man is trying to persuade a woman that they’ve met, and she, for whatever reason, is not conceding it and avers they have not, at least not in the way he’s trying to imagine it. The reality of the film mirrors the logic of the narrator, as the scenes we see and the topology of the hotel they’re staying in shift — the layout and the rooms, the placement of statues, and the gardens and even the shadows being thrown by the sun — as the camera glides by and around the actors. Just about every aspect of their material reality is constantly reconfigured as the dreamily detached narrative voiceover floats over and suggests different realities, which then appear on screen. Throughout it all the woman (Delphine Seyrig) is adamant, and so the film might be seen as a woman trying to get away from a creepily insistent man, and as a plot line it really doesn’t get much more simple (or empathetic) than that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alain Resnais; Writer Alain Robbe-Grillet; Cinematographer Sacha Vierny; Starring Giorgio Albertazzi, Delphine Seyrig, Sacha Pitoëff; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 12 November 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 1998).

Criterion Sunday 472: 豚と軍艦 Buta to Gunkan (Pigs and Battleships, 1961)

I watched this a few days ago and already I’m struggling to piece together the plot; reading up on it on Wikipedia, I realise there’s a lot, possibly more than I took in while watching it. But that’s in the nature of Shohei Imamura’s budding style — it’s both possible to see how it might have stood out in Japanese post-war cinema, but also it can be quite tiring watching the action flick here and there incessantly. At the heart of the story though is the young, somewhat foolish wannabe gangster Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato). He gets swept up into the game, much to the disgust of his dad, while meanwhile his girlfriend Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura) has few enough choices of her own either. So it’s a film not just about Japan in the aftermath of WW2, but it also wraps up an unequal class system too, affected by the colonising Americans, whose capitalism this whole gangster lifestyle seems to be cribbing from. There’s a lot going on, and maybe a rewatch is in order to keep it all straight, though I imagine I’d still find myself a bit lost, not unlike Kinta.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Shohei Imamura 今村昌平; Writer Hisashi Yamanouchi 山内久; Cinematographer Shinsaku Himeda 姫田真佐久; Starring Hiroyuki Nagato 長門裕之, Jitsuko Yoshimura 吉村実子; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 4 October 2021.

Criterion Sunday 428: Blast of Silence (1961)

A pretty taut and bleak film noir which distils a lot of the generic conventions down to the kind of format in which they’d be parodied for generations to come: the hard-boiled voiceover, the heavy sense of existential angst, the bleak futility of all actions, the duplicity of men (and women), all exemplified by a heavy-set tough guy. In this film, the tough guy is played by the director and this is all firmly in the finest low-budget moulds, with plenty of location shooting in New York City, including a climactic pursuit filmed during a hurricane, which certainly helps with the sense of overcast threat. The whole film has a great sense of place, and a deft way with moving its hero through the plot in such a way as to maintain momentum even as we know, right from the start, that he is surely and certainly doomed.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Allen Baron; Cinematographer Merrill Brody; Starring Allen Baron, Molly McCarthy; Length 77 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 15 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 406: “Martha Graham: Dance on Film”

There are three films in this collection, each around half an hour in length and made for American public television at a time when this kind of programming was possible. The first, A Dancer’s World (1957) is intended as an introduction to the Martha Graham Dance Company and her place in American dance, something I appreciate given my lack of knowledge of this major area of cultural work. Dance always seemed rather forbidding to me, and even if it’s more often seen on-screen nowadays in its contemporary street dance varieties, it still has a beauty and sophistication that is only amplified by the ballet-like compositions seen here. Graham narrates while fixing her make-up and costume in the dressing room; she introduces her company who enter the dance studio to illustrate some techniques, but it’s presented as a sequence with only the barest commentary. Instead, it’s the dancers’ limbs and actions that provide the context, with Graham delivering in his imperious way the diktats of her craft: control over the body, the elevation of the genius through a decade or more of practise. And in the end, for all her own resistance to filming it, and the fact this was made for public TV, the effect is rather cinematic after all, elegant yet mysterious.

The other two films are productions of her work presented without commentary (or any contextualisation or, indeed, any speaking at all). I don’t know how Appalachian Spring (1958) ranks as a film; it’s clearly a filmed piece of staged dance theatre and while certainly the blocking has been done with an eye towards its reproduction on screen, it’s still essentially a stage piece. That said, this is the kind of thing, a strange curio that stands somewhat to the side of the film history, which intrigues me, because it mainly exists to showcase the work of pioneering dancer, choreographer and artist Martha Graham to a wider world. She’s technically too old to be playing this role of a new bride (having entered her 60s), but avoiding close-ups alongside the modernist staging means it works perfectly fine. The language of dance, though, quite aside from the language of cinema, is its own thing and is rather opaque to me, but it seems that within these movements and this choreography, the motion of bodies, the gestures and contortions, there’s an entire world of feeling. There’s a certain awe to watching the long loose limbs of Matt Turney as the Pioneer Woman, so elegant (glamorous even) and so aware at every moment of how her motion will affect her clothing or how she interacts with those around her, or the gentle little skips of Bertram Ross’s Preacher, and soon enough it’s all over because this is still just 32 minutes in length, but it’s a lovely 32 minutes.

The final of the three is Night Journey (1960). I found this filmed performance less successful than Appalachian Spring, though I remain as yet without any significant status as a dance expert. There is so much that is mysterious to me about the form, but somehow this piece, derived from the story of Oedipus and Jocasta via Sophocles, seems a little bit more mannered, or perhaps Graham’s movements feel a little stiffer — though that may be as much to do with the subject matter, the studied formality of the tragedic mode. But then the group of chorus dancers come in, and somehow they create a sense of wonder, seemingly floating above the stiffness of the tragedy, so long and thin and with such easy movements. However, it certainly makes an impression as part of a trilogy of three films about Graham and her work.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are a large number of extras which contextualise the work of Martha Graham, which is just as well for me. Perhaps the most illuminating on the first disc is a comparison piece by dance critic and historian Deborah Jowitt, which contrasts the 1958 filmed version with a silent 16mm film made in 1944, starring Merce Cunningham as the Preacher. Jowitt is very good at detailing how the gestures and movements are supposed to come across, and what changes were made for the filming, and it becomes rather engrossing, bringing out details that my untrained eye was unable to detect the first time around.
  • Another extra is a short few minutes’ excerpt from a TV programme (perhaps from the 1970s or 80s) in which composer Aaron Copland touches on Appalachian Spring and his work with Graham.
  • Aside from Graham, the other important figure in these films is producer Nathan Kroll, who negotiated with Graham to get her on screen, and who tells the story of working with her to realise this three-part project. We only hear his words, but they are illustrated by stills and clips from the films.
  • There’s a bit more about Kroll in a 12-minute interview with Ron Simon, who discusses Kroll’s important place in television. His work with Graham was just part of an interest in masterclasses with key cultural figures (like cellist Pablo Casals, or opera singer Luciano Pavarotti), showing a deep and abiding interest in how masters of their art teach students. Kroll himself was it seems a thwarted violinist and wanted to imagine himself via these surrogates as an expert of sorts.
  • The first disc is rounded out by interviews with the two editors who worked on the three films, Eleanor Hamerow and Miriam Arsham, who speak about their work on the films and also touch on why women were so frequently found as editors.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 14 March 2021.

A Dancer’s World (1957)
Director/Cinematographer Peter Glushanok; Writers Martha Graham and LeRoy Leatherman; Starring Martha Graham; Length 31 minutes.

Appalachian Spring (1958)
Director/Cinematographer Peter Glushanok; Writer Martha Graham; Starring Martha Graham, Matt Turney, Bertram Ross; Length 32 minutes.

Night Journey (1960)
Director Alexander Hammid; Cinematographer Stanley Meredith; Starring Martha Graham, Bertram Ross, Paul Taylor; Length 30 minutes.

Criterion Sunday 332: Viridiana (1961)

I’ve never quite been sure how to take Luis Buñuel, and I certainly wouldn’t wish to deny that his films have a vision and polish to them, but I’m not sure I’m particularly receptive to that vision. Undoubtedly it’s not from love of the Catholic church, because that seems to be his most consistent target, as indeed it is here. Most of his strategies seem to be a form of heightened trolling, so when for example he deploys rape as a trope (and our saintly titular heroine is threatened with it more than once in this film), it’s presumably to make the point that it is inextricable from religion itself, almost as if tacitly condoned by the God-fearing patriarchy. Likewise, having the beggars profanely recreate the Last Supper, trashing the bourgeois villa, seems to be implicating hypocrisy in the middle-classes. I can feel these things at an intellectual level, but there’s a certain heavy-handedness to it that I find myself resisting, quite aside from the very real trauma that these ideas carry. I guess this way of blending a sprightly humour and a gift for evoking atmosphere and place with a deep, acrid bitterness is very much Buñuel’s style, and sometimes it’s unclear to me whether that bitterness is directed at the institutions or the people trapped within and by those institutions, but it comes off at best as misanthropy.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel; Writers Julio Alejandra and Buñuel (based on the novel Halma by Benito Pérez Galdós); Cinematographer José F. Aguayo; Starring Silvia Pinal, Margarita Lozano, Francisco Rabal, Fernando Rey; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 5 July 2020 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, July 2000).

Criterion Sunday 286: Divorzio all’italiana (Divorce Italian Style, 1961)

Marcello Mastroianni’s married man, a rakish Sicilian noble fallen on hard times, Baron Fernando, falls for his beautiful teenage cousin Angela (Stefania Sandrelli) and tries to figure out ways he can get out of his marriage, thanks to Italy’s strict laws about divorce. If the premise of this film is rather leering and lascivious, one suspects it was taken much the same way in Italy of 1960; this, after all, is a film that attempts to poke fun at the leering, lascivious ways of older gentlemen like Fernando (his dad, too, is much the same with the family’s maid). Mastroianni is of course excellent in the kind of role he was always a natural fit for, what with his charm and good looks, but that doesn’t excuse his character, who gets increasingly desperate and violent in his plotting to divorce his wife Rosalia (Daniela Rocca, who is also clearly a very beautiful woman and not much older than Sandrelli, even if the filmmakers have given her a unibrow and some unflattering upper lip hair). Ferdinando remains the focus throughout, along with his (at times) cartoonishly silly plans, and neither Angela nor Rosalia feel fully fleshed out as characters, but the film maintains a light and humorous tone to all the goings-on, with some beautiful black-and-white photography of Sicily.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Pietro Germi; Writers Ennio De Concini, Germi and Alfredo Giannetti (based on the novel Un delitto d’onore “Honour Killing” by Giovanni Arpino); Cinematographers Carlo Di Palma and Leonida Barboni; Starring Marcello Mastroianni, Stefania Sandrelli, Daniela Rocca, Leopoldo Trieste; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 12 January 2020.

大俠梅花鹿 Da Xia Mei Hua Lu (The Fantasy of Deer Warrior, 1961)

Can anyone truly call themselves a lover of the seventh art, that play of light and movement over time resulting in motion pictures, if they haven’t seen a bunch of adults dressed in animal onesies enacting a story of primal passion in the wooded hills of Taiwan? You’d imagine this might be a kids’ film except for its life and death themes, as Miss Deer must ward off the untoward attentions of an Elk and a Wolf, goaded on by the spectacularly bespectacled Foxy, the latter two characters at one point grooving on down to a kitschy version of ‘Tequila’ in the forest. It is hardly a perfect film by any means, but you may find there’s enough to justify watching it — albeit at the danger of provoking a strange attraction towards a woman dressed as a fox, or a man dressed as a deer.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Ying Chang 張英; Writer Chi-Cheng Chao 趙之誠; Cinematographer Hsing-Yi Li 李興義; Starring Yun Ling 凌雲, Hung Pai 白虹, Lin Lin 林琳; Length 87 minutes.
Seen on a train (DVD on a laptop), Monday 1 July 2019.

사랑방 손님과 어머니 Sarangbang Sonnimgwa Eomeoni (My Mother and Her Guest aka The Houseguest and My Mother, 1961)

I may not be an expert on Korean cinema, but this seems to me to be one of the standouts of this era of filmmaking along with Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid of the year before (which I haven’t yet seen, but which will show up on the Criterion Collection). The director and his lead actress (also his wife), Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee, have their own fascinating stories quite separate from this film — they were kidnapped in 1978 by North Korea on the orders of Kim Jong-il so as to bring prestige to that country’s film industry — and this story is told in the British documentary The Lovers and the Despot (2016).


A film told largely through the eyes of a young child, Ok-hee (the ubiquitous Jeon Young-son, who appears in many of these 1960s films), who at six is bright, chatty and seemingly guileless in her attachment to her widowed mother (Choi Eun-hee) and the lodger who takes a spare room in their home (Kim Jin-kyu). Soon enough we realise that in fact she has her tricks too, and there’s a lot of humour (she can be very funny) and compassion in the way she helps to match-make her mother with the guest, contrary to societal expectations around how widows should act in Korean society of this period (it’s set in the 1920s I believe). There’s a lot of play around lying and truth-telling, there’s careful etiquette about when two unattached people can be in the same space together or seen talking, lots of avoidance of eye contact, and then at length the sweep of melodrama as the home’s maid falls pregnant to an itinerant egg-seller, and has to move out for propriety’s sake. The film never becomes harsh like some of its characters though, and there’s an underlying warmth to the story that suggests a future for the characters that is only ever hinted at.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Shin Sang-ok 신상옥; Writer Lim Hee-jae 임희재 (based on the novel by Cho Yo-sup 주요섭); Cinematographer Choe Su-yeong 최수영; Starring Choi Eun-hee 최은희, Jeon Young-son 전영선, Kim Jin-kyu 김진규; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at Korean Cultural Centre, London, Thursday 20 June 2019.

Criterion Sunday 238: Une femme est une femme (A Woman Is a Woman, 1961)

This very early film, Godard’s third feature I believe, gets wildly disparate reviews, and I sort of land somewhere in the middle. It’s a thin undertaking, like so much of JLG’s work, a few recycled ideas stolen from books and film, made feature-length, and largely predicated on the on-screen allure of his leading lady Anna Karina. Of course, there have been less substantial reasons for making a film, and if it’s going to be Karina mugging for the camera or doing little musical interludes (though this is not really a musical), then there are plenty of pleasures along the way. The fourth-wall breaking, the self-aware nods to cinema history, and the constant inventive staging and cutting mark out this period of Godard’s work, and just on a formal level it’s a pleasant undertaking. That said, Karina’s character feels like little more than a cipher for her (fairly bland) male co-stars’ sexual competition, as Brialy and Belmondo try to woo her, and so it ends up feeling overlong even at its shortish running length. Likeable, colourful, and playful, with an excellent Karina only hinting at her much greater work in Vivre sa vie (still my favourite of Godard’s films)… but little more than that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Anna Karina, Jean-Claude Brialy, Jean-Paul Belmondo; Length 85 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 5 February 2019 (and originally on VHS in the university library, Wellington, October 1998).