I’m spending a week looking at Arabic language cinema, from around the Arabic-speaking world, stretching from North Africa across the Middle East. One of the key early figures in modern Arab cinema is the work of Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, and indeed Egypt has always been the powerhouse cinematic country of the whole region, with a range of popular cinema rivalling that of Bollywood to the East. Chahine integrates influences from France and the Soviet Union, amongst other traditions, creating some of the greatest works of modern cinema and he has certainly been influential in Arab cinema. I’ve already reviewed one of his earlier films, the excellent melodrama Cairo Station (1958), though these 60s works feel like quite different films.
These three films all feature on a box set put out by the Korean Film Archive, though many of their film restorations (not just these three, but many others) are available to view for free on an official website and a YouTube channel, which I’d recommend checking out if you want to follow up on classic Korean cinema. As for the director, I can’t give you much information. His name is sometimes transliterated as Lee Man-hui, and he was born in Seoul in 1931 and studied there too. He started out in the industry as an actor in the 50s, but had graduated to directing in 1961 and as a director had a prodigious output for much of the 1960s, making up to 10 films in a single year (1967 seems to have been his most prolific). He died at the age of 43 from liver cancer, in 1975.
A Korean drama set at the outskirts in a large city, where a couple of intertwined families of North Korean expatriates live, the lives of the children and their parents quite different, with the generation gap marked by the disrespect shown from the younger ones, who need to go out to the city for work (not all of it quite as morally upstanding as their parents would want). We see a lot of the elderly gentlemen of the families sitting around, getting grumpy about the price of things (that indeed is how the film begins), being gouged in the rent by their landlord even for these shacks high above the city, which feels more like a favela or a slum than an integrated settlement. We see the way that money pulls everyone apart, fuelled by the American servicemen who frequent the bars and nightclubs, but their poverty is presumably also class-related and to do with their North Korean origins. The film can be a little clunky at times, but it’s compelling and moves towards a more hopeful resolution centred on the younger generation.
Director Kim Soo-yong 김수용; Writer Lim Hee-jae 임희재 (based on the play by Kim Yeong-su 김영수); Cinematographer Jeon Jo-myeong 전조명; Starring Kim Seung-ho 김승호, Shin Seong-il 신성일, Kim Ji-mee 김지미; Length 81 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Monday 24 June 2019.
This film, set in historical Korea (Goryeo), tells of a time when old people were abandoned up a mountain by their kids, a response to a lack of food in a culture which greatly valued large families. It opens with a panel of experts in the modern day talking about the scourge of overpopulation, before flashing back in time to a rural village out in the mountains. Given the large number of people in the film, the 10 kids of the one family, whom we see at various times over a number of decades, I did get rather confused by who was whom — not least because the film is missing a couple of reels, replaced by dense chunks of text which go past pretty quickly. Still, it’s a brutal film of lives cut too short, nasty and brutish, with all kinds of squabbles and conflicts defining these people, who are born without much hope and then stripped even of that by the circumstances of their lives. The widescreen monochrome photography looks good, though, and it presents nicely its moral quandary of who in society we should value.
Director/Writer Kim Ki-young 김기영; Cinematographer Kim Deok-jin 김덕진; Starring Kim Jin-kyu 김진규, Ju Jeung-ryu 주증녀; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Saturday 29 June 2019.
There’s something about Visconti’s The Leopard that makes it feel like a relic from a previous era of filmmaking, or perhaps its ultimate summation in many ways. Of course, it’s set in the past (the 19th century), and tells a story of an aristocratic family headed by Burt Lancaster’s paterfamilias, confronting a new era of Italy’s reunification under Garibaldi. However, it has that period detail and a certain patina of widescreen cinematography and big, lush melodramatic action that suggests the prestige Hollywood pictures of the 1950s. The confrontation between the aristocracy and the middle-classes — the resigned sense of a world that’s changing beyond one’s control (which plays out primarily across Lancaster’s face) — is very much the kind of grand theme that feels of its time, rather less common in modern cinema (though entitled aristocrats will also be a staple of the costume drama). The way the film works best comes down in large part to Lancaster’s stillness while everything whirls around him — literally so in the last third, which is set amongst a grand ball. Those who are attentive to acting, as to sumptuous set design, will find a lot to like here, and there’s something about the grandeur of the entire undertaking that feels like it will only become more suggestive and richer the more times one watches it, so perhaps by the time I reach Lancaster’s age, I will unreservedly love this. For me now, the film feels like an exemplar (a glorious, expressive one admittedly) of a certain decadent form, just as Lancaster (and his nephew played by Alain Delon) represent that decadence in practice.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luchino Visconti; Writers Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli, Massimo Franciosa, Visconti and Suso Cecchi d’Amico (based on the novel by Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa); Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno; Starring Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, Alain Delon; Length 185 minutes.
Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 6 June 2003 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 6 January 2019).
A documentary tracking Ingmar Bergman during the making of Winter Light, split into five roughly half-hour chunks, as it was originally made for Swedish TV. That film is one of my favourite of Bergman’s efforts, and he seems relaxed talking about its making in great detail. We also get a chance to see some of the filming, as well as comparisons of differently-edited versions of the same scene, all presented by the director of the I Am Curious diptych. Fans of Bergman will undoubtedly get a lot more out of this fairly dry documentary than I did, but it gets into the craft a lot more than most filmmaker puff pieces.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Vilgot Sjöman; Cinematographer Mac Ahlberg; Starring Ingmar Bergman; Length 146 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 23 April 2018.
Bergman’s ‘faith’ films have been growing on me somewhat as I’ve watched them, and in some ways this is the most stripped back. As the title suggests, it is a quiet film, with long stretches lacking dialogue. It helps too that it’s set in a fictional central European/eastern European country where none of the principal characters understands the language (which looks like Serbian or Czech, but sounds a bit French or German). There’s a sense of a world still recovering from a war (World War II is undoubtedly the reference point), and one abandoned by faith, although in some ways Bergman’s deployment of those tropes are the weakest in the film for me. What I liked was the suffocating atmosphere, lustrous close-ups and enigmatic actions blending together to create a strange dreamlike affect. It’s one I’ll need to see again to properly appreciate, I suspect.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Sven Nykvist; Starring Ingrid Thulin, Gunnel Lindblom; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 15 April 2018.
The second of Bergman’s loosely-defined faith trilogy, I do much prefer Winter Light to Through a Glass Darkly, though obviously they share a number of threads — the idea of God as a spider, a questioning attitude to the divine presence, many of the same actors and Sven Nykvist’s extraordinary camera. This film has a lugubrious pace, but also, at times, touches of what seem like humour (much the way I find humour in Bresson too: utterly po-faced, but yet somehow not without mischief). Its central character, a priest (Gunnar Björnstrand), is unable to reach God, feels himself a failure, and watches as his congregation dwindles. The film’s title in Swedish is “The Communicants” and there’s a sense in which each character in the film is trying to somehow commune with God. If the previous film posits Love as the connecting force, this seems far more tenuous here, though perhaps there’s something there, like an empathy which Björnstrand’s character so abjectly fails to achieve. One of Bergman’s better works, I think.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Sven Nykvist; Starring Gunnar Björnstrand, Ingrid Thulin, Max von Sydow, Gunnel Lindblom; Length 81 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Thursday 5 April 2018.
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.
I’ve seen this film of Godard’s several times over the decades (and have written about it here before) and I feel both compelled and distanced from it, though that may be by design. It’s about filmmaking at a certain level, it’s about the clash of cultures, it’s about a relationship being torn apart (mirroring Godard and Anna Karina, one presumes, at least to a point) and it’s about a lot in between, but mainly it’s about contempt. Not least, one might extrapolate, that includes the director’s difficulty with women, suggesting a certain unknowability. It’s beautiful and hard, and contains a lot, and for all that I don’t necessarily enjoy its characters, I think the filmmaking is about as good as Godard managed.
Criterion Extras: There are plenty of extras on a 2 DVD set, including Encounter with Fritz Lang (1964), a short film in which the director speaks a little on the set of Contempt, but is mostly clips illustrating his architectural style in his early German work. There’s also two Jacques Rozier short films. Le Parti des choses: Bardot et Godard (1964) is a slight little piece about Godard filming Bardot, which takes a sort of philosophical path. However, the better is Paparazzi (1964). Brigitte Bardot, it turns out, was very famous in the 60s, and this film deals with obsessive photographers using a fairly recently-coined term. Those guys are still with us because they’ve become embedded into a system that reinforces and commodifies fame, and that is hinted at with the context of magazine sales, but this short film is mostly about how they were annoying when she was filming Contempt. It’s quite strikingly put together, and has a zingy energy to it. Other extras include an interview with cinematographer Raoul Coutard, an audio commentary, and an hour-long discussion between Fritz Lang and Godard called The Dinosaur and the Baby (1967).
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on Il disprezzo by Alberto Moravia); Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Jack Palance, Fritz Lang, Giorgia Moll; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Sunday 20 August 2017 (and originally on VHS at home, Wellington, April 1998, and later on DVD at home, London, Wednesday 14 August 2013).