My penultimate day at the London Film Festival started with a screentalk from Kasi Lemmons, director of Harriet (part of this year’s festival, though sadly a film I shan’t be seeing here, as it was a late addition), but also many other films I’ve loved over the years. Her five feature films were all covered, with clips provided, in an interview chaired by Gaylene Gould, and I’m reminded of how underrated and funny Talk to Me (2007) is, not to mention her seasonal musical drama Black Nativity (2013), though of course it’s Eve’s Bayou (1997) which received the most attention, and for good reason. Lemmons was voluble about her career, which stretches back to her early childhood as an actor, and is an inspiring figure in general, happy to speak to her many admirers after the screening. I did not ask a question, although I do wonder how the film will be received Stateside, given the recent prominent critiques of Black British actors playing iconic African-American figures. I certainly plan to see it though, and Cynthia Erivo has already shown in Widows that she’s a star in the making. Of the four films I saw, they span several countries, including two German films (one from the East in the 1960s, and the other a recent mystery thriller) both with slightly tricksy narrative structures), two black-and-white films (the East German one and a recent Saudi film directed by a woman in a magical realist style), and one documentary.
Pasolini’s second film is this slice of the kind of subject matter that Fellini was more used to serving up, which is to say a richly melodramatic story of the former sex worker of the film’s title and her relationship with her son Ettore. Of course, stylistically, Pasolini’s take is hardly comparable to Fellini, aside from the garrulous camera-hogging of Anna Magnani in the central role recalling Giulietta Masina. This is far more focused on the fragile ground on which Magnani’s character tries to rebuild her life, as her honest profession as a vegetable seller in the market is undercut by not just forays into vice in order to try and provide for her son’s future (a little play-acting with a pimp and a sex worker to blackmail a restaurant owner into getting him a job) but also the return of her former pimp Carmine. Fragile too is Ettore’s self-identity within his social circle — he’s a young man trying to prove himself by courting one slightly older local woman — while meanwhile given a hard time by his male friends, all of which combined with a revelation of his mother’s former career, seems to push him over the edge. Pasolini’s attention then is on wider society — including, of course, the church — and the part it plays in destroying a family. Magnani remains at the heart of the film, though, and there are some particularly striking tracking shots showing her walking around the darkened streets lit by ethereal street lights, as people hove into view out of the darkness to engage her in conversation before peeling off again. She may be trying to constantly move forward, but she never seems to be given the chance to get anywhere.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Pier Paolo Pasolini; Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli; Starring Anna Magnani, Ettore Garofalo, Franco Citti; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 21 January 2019.
There’s a lot of gorgeous style to this film, all high-contrast black-and-white starkness, an almost documentary-like sense of its Sicilian landscapes, not to mention the evocative faces of its protagonists. It’s a period story made in the 60s about a post-war gangster and rebel laid low by the forces of the law and the mafia, but it feels like it’s made contemporaneously, and the director has a solid control of his actors. I found the narrative difficult to get hold of, as it jumps back and forth in time fairly liberally, while the titular figure is rarely actually seen except when dead. I wanted to like this a lot more than I did, but perhaps it just needs the right frame of mind and the right screening to fall into place.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Francesco Rosi; Writers Rosi, Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Enzo Provenzale and Franco Solinas; Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo; Starring Salvo Randone, Frank Wolff; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 September 2018.
Presented side-by-side in the Criterion Collection with Olmi’s previous film Il posto, this has a quite different feeling to it, even if it has all the same beauty to its monochrome cinematography. Instead of moving to the big city of Milan, this film has a hero who leaves that city for the remoteness of Sicily. It’s about two people who are already together as of the film’s start, but who seem to be unhappy and drifting apart. It’s a film that doesn’t constantly look forward to a (possibly bleak) future, but continually seems to look back to a (apparently happier) past from that bleak present. This shifts some of the emotional weight of the film a little, but love — while uncertain in both films — here instead has a haunting, spectral presence.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ermanno Olmi; Cinematographer Lamberto Caimi; Starring Carlo Cabrini, Anna Canzi; Length 77 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 February 2018.
This box set brings together all of Truffaut’s films starring the fictional character Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud). His first in the series is also Truffaut’s debut feature, The 400 Blows (1959), released as Criterion spine number 5. The others are collected in this set: Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970) and Love on the Run (1979).
Among the many extras on the set is Antoine and Colette (1962), a short film originally part of an anthology, which offers the first sequel of sorts for the Doinel character, introducing Marie-France Pisier as his youthful crush Colette. It’s in widescreen black-and-white and still retains that link to the early Paris-street-bound energy of the nouvelle vague filmmakers, while cannily setting up Doinel’s later character as a feckless and unreliable lover that Truffaut and Léaud would pursue for the next 17 years.
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.
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.
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.
Film texts and websites are apt to call director Agnès Varda “one of the best female directors of her generation”, but let’s start right off by saying the “female” caveat is nonsense. Even amongst the creative wellspring of the French Nouvelle Vague — which arguably began with Varda’s own debut feature La Pointe courte in the mid-1950s — she stands shoulder-to-shoulder with her more feted (male) compatriots Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, Resnais, Demy, Rohmer and Marker (amongst others). And as a demonstration of her talents, Cléo is pretty much peerless. It tracks in real time (albeit from 5 to 6:30pm), 90 minutes out of the life of its heroine Cléo Victoire (Corinne Marchand), as she awaits the results of a biopsy. Yet, despite this morbid premise, the film is utterly filled with the vibrancy of life, specifically that in the French capital, as Varda inserts semi-documentary interludes into Cléo’s travels around Paris, shooting street views through the windows of various cars and trams, crowded café scenes, or pavement attractions she passes by. There’s even an amusing silent film pastiche starring Godard and his then-wife Anna Karina. As in her husband Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg a few years later, the Algerian conflict lurks in the background as another pull towards the precariousness of life within an existential framework. However, the chief interest of the film is in the construction of Cléo’s identity, as she catches sight of herself in mirrors and is constantly looked at (and, she presumes, judged) by others. She changes hats, clothes and even hair throughout the film as a means to confound this gaze, as the film becomes the chronicle of her discovering how to live life on her own terms, such that the impending death sentence she believes the doctor will give her at the film’s end seems to be commuted by the sheer force of will of the film and of her, its heroine. It’s a glorious example of the best of early-60s French cinema, in beautifully-contrasted black-and-white photography and with a spirited lead performance.
Criterion Extras: There’s a clutch of high quality extras on this disc, no little thanks to Varda’s skill at the documentary. Her Remembrances (2005) reunites her with Marchand as well as a number of other actors in the film, and revisits some of the locations. She talks of the importance of the trees, as well as getting all the clocks seen in the film to be accurate. Better yet are some contemporary short films, including the luminous L’Opéra-mouffe (1958), a glorious piece blending a modernist score by Georges Delerue with documentary footage and avant-garde reflections on personal experiences like pregnancy and drunkenness; it’s the very soul of the nouvelle vague. Another aspect on this movement is Les Fiancés du pont Mac Donald (1961), much of which is seen within the film, being a silent slapstick pastiche with Godard and his then-wife Anna Karina, and which warns of the dangers of wearing glasses (a sly dig at Godard’s self-mythologising by Varda). There’s also a short travelogue filmed from a scooter which traces Cléo’s path through Paris, with an overlaid map in the corner and occasional inserts of film stills to show where the scenes were set. Finally, there’s a short French TV clip of Madonna lauding Varda’s most famous film, as well as a gallery of paintings by Hans Baldung Grien which inspired Varda. Oh and a trailer, of course.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Agnès Varda; Cinematographers Jean Rabier and Alain Levent; Starring Corinne Marchand; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 January 2016.
This early-1960s oddity was a one-off feature from its creators, but it somehow stands out from other low-budget quickly-shot exploitation-themed films of the era by virtue of the polish and expertise it shows both in the filming and the acting. Largely this is because its makers had a lifetime of experience in industrial filmmaking, turning their hand early in their careers to something a bit more genre in a long-shot hope of wider success, though that took several decades to arrive. It follows a young woman, Mary (Candace Hilligoss), involved in a near-fatal car accident in Lawrence, Kansas near the beginning from which she is the only survivor. Feeling traumatised, she goes on the road, ending up in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she takes a room. Increasingly she finds herself haunted by a demonic presence (in fact, her director in white greasepaint make-up). Fairly simple elements, really, but they’re made effective by the quality of the photography and the eerieness of the atmosphere, which is created partly by the organ score (Mary plays a professional organist), as well as by the distinctive quality of Hilligoss’s performance. She is called on to drift affectlessly through the film, as if in some kind of limbo between life and death, a liminal state only further emphasised by Hervey’s ghoulish appearances as well as periodic slips into a sort of non-existence during which people don’t seem to be aware of Mary’s presence. It suggests something of a protean The Sixth Sense, and though playing with a lot of familiar horror film tropes, it’s definitely a fascinating outlier in film history.
Criterion Extras: Quite a packed collection for extras is this one, which aside from having both cuts of the film (the original 75 minute release, and the extended director’s cut), also has some featurette extras. The lengthiest is The Movie That Wouldn’t Die!, a local Kansas TV piece from 1989 about the film’s re-release (its first official release on VHS) and rise to cult fame, which catches up with the director, writer and some of the cast as they recall its making so many years before, along with clips of the (re)-premiere that year. The same TV presenter returns for The Carnival Tour, a shorter segment revisiting the film’s locations around Lawrence, Kansas as well as the spectacular pavilion near Salt Lake City, Utah (Saltair) that was the film’s inspiration. Both pieces, despite their low-budget lo-fi 80s TV origins, are nicely put together and have a local’s enthusiasm to them that is of a piece with the film.
There are in addition a number of illustrated (text-based) essays, one about the history of the Saltair resort, and interviews by each of Harvey, writer Clifford and star Hilligoss, interspersed with plenty of images of them making the film as well as movie ephemera and promotional materials.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Herk Harvey; Writers Harvey and John Clifford; Cinematographer Maurice Prather; Starring Candace Hilligoss; Length 84 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 22 November 2015 (and again at home, London, Tuesday 9 February 2016).
After the success of Yojimbo the year before, Kurosawa practically rushed into production of this sequel, ahead of his bigger production High and Low the year after. It seems on first pass to be a talkier thing, as Toshiro Mifune’s wandering (and effectively nameless) samurai happens upon a plot by nine youngsters against an apparently corrupt chamberlain, an intricate court intrigue that can be at times difficult to follow. However, the gist is that the more experienced Mifune has the sense of the situation, guiding the youngsters away from rash action and directing their energies towards the real target, a henchman (Tatsuya Nakadai) of the local superintendent who is manipulating events to his own advantage. In doing so, Mifune finds himself in plenty of situations in which he is called upon to fight, but this time he’s not just out for money as in the first film, but for more honourable reasons. In fact, the film finds even more comedy than the first film, especially in the foolishness of the nine kids Mifune is in charge of, who act at times rather like a wayward family of cygnets following their mother (visualised literally at one point, as they follow him off screen in a line). It’s a beautifully shot film, too, with a large number of perfect compositions framing the ten faces, Mifune always set apart from the others. For all that it seems to have been made quickly, it’s in many ways the equal of Yojimbo and a worthy successor.
Criterion Extras: This is a relatively slender package, with a small gallery of production stills featuring Kurosawa and his actors on set, as well as a commentary by scholar Stephen Prince, and another episode of Japanese TV series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. Prince covers all the bases pretty well in his exhaustive discussion, including various of the swordplay moves, and some careful notes on the framing.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Ryuzo Kikushima 菊島隆三, Hideo Oguni 小国英雄 and Kurosawa (based on the novel 山本周五郎 Nichinichi Heian “Peaceful Days” by Shugoro Yamamoto 山本周五郎); Cinematographers Fukuzo Koizumi 小泉福造 and Takao Saito 斎藤孝雄; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎, Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 13 September 2015.
I have this feeling that among the famous auteurs of the French New Wave, Éric Rohmer is the one most apt to be overlooked. Perhaps it’s that he lacks a really stand-out work (although 1969’s Ma nuit chez Maud gave him some of his initial success), or that his directorial style avoids much of the flashiness of his contemporaries. His film career, too, took a little longer to take hold, not least because he was heavily involved as editor of the influential Cahiers du cinéma film journal in the early part of the 1960s. Certainly, his debut feature film, produced in 1959, the same year as the other notable debuts of Truffaut and Godard, was delayed in its release for a number of years, and never really attained the same kind of either critical or commercial success. But this is all a bit unfair to the film, which has plenty to recommend it. Le Signe du lion is a beautiful evocation of Paris with a great sense of place (Rohmer always seemed to have the most knack for capturing the spirit of wherever he was filming), shot in luminous black-and-white in some iconic settings along the river and around the Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
If the film’s shooting locations are quite swanky locales, even by the standards of over 50 years ago, it only serves to emphasise the distance its protagonist Pierre (Jess Hahn) has to fall. He may not start off rich, but he cuts a louche, overfed figure, from a solidly middle-class American-Swiss family, and pursues a bohemian lifestyle (as a musician with distinctly modernist proclivities). When a promised inheritance windfall doesn’t materialise, the debts he’s accrued begin to take their toll, and with all his well-connected friends off for their summer holidays (the date intertitles are given prominence), he gets progressively more desperate as July wears on into August. Streets which were once packed with familiar faces start to become more alien to him, friends replaced by Europeans on holiday. This disconnect is made literal as a downwards class mobility by his ever more grubby clothes and dishevelled appearance.
Aside from this sense of place, what Rohmer captures so well, and so subtly, is the way that Pierre’s desperation takes hold. At first he lives on credit at various hotels, having run-ins with the staff, barely making ends meet. We see him walking the streets in his freshly laundered shirt and jacket, passing rough sleepers while frittering away spare francs on inessential items like stain remover for his trousers. But when finally kicked out of his accommodation, it doesn’t take long for this to seem ridiculous, as his shoes start to give way and he’s reduced to fishing out flotsam from the river in the hope it might be discarded food he can eat. But the film isn’t all grimness, and there are periodically sparks of hope, as when he falls into the company of a fellow homeless artist-of-sorts alongside the river.
Throughout all of this, there are continuities with Rohmer’s later filmmaking. Its setting over the summer holiday period is one that he would return to many times (not least in Le Rayon vert 25 years later, likewise marked out by title cards with the date, as well as 1996’s Conte d’été and others). Then we have those solo male protagonists, so often creatures of high-flown intellectual taste, which might suggest some form of autobiographical self-identification, but if so, it’s one riven by self-criticism. For his male protagonists, though they may be nice enough guys, are never really heroes, and are often marked by some weakness in their morals (which is partly the great subject of his six subsequent films, grouped together as the ‘Six Moral Tales’). In Le Signe du lion, there’s a compassion instead for the experience of homelessness, and the way the homeless are patronised and barely tolerated by polite society, but I’m not always convinced that this compassion extends to the protagonist. There’s a nagging sense in my mind that Rohmer is judging Pierre, whether for falling into this situation, or for his slight sense of aloofness even when he’s at his lowest ebb. This judgement would only become clearer in subsequent films (and I hope to convey this in future reviews, whenever I get round to them; they’ll show up in my Criterion Sunday series).
I don’t mean any of that to be a criticism of Rohmer – if anything I think it marks him out as being every bit the equal of his contemporaries as a director and screenwriter, with a great concern for his characters. Le Signe du lion is a first feature, but it should stand alongside those other more famous titles, as a great work in its own right.
Director Éric Rohmer; Writers Rohmer and Paul Gégauff; Cinematographer Nicolas Hayer; Starring Jess Hahn; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 3 January 2015.