Criterion Sunday 522: Il deserto rosso (Red Desert, 1964)

This may be Antonioni’s most inscrutable film for me, and watching it again I get the feeling that it may be one I need to see on the big screen to get into. Certainly I am always in awe of Antonioni’s control over framing and the way he places people within landscapes, moving through and weaving into and out of the frame, dominated often by buildings, here enormous crumbling industrial edifices belching smoke into the sky. Monica Vitti is suitably totemic herself, entering and exiting in a green coat, these block colours (green, red, blue, yellow) setting themselves off from the dull grey of the rest of the landscapes we see. It’s a film about industry in a sense, and about the modern world, but it’s never so straightforward as to have a plot exactly. There’s Vitti and then there’s Richard Harris’s character Corrado, and there’s a relationship of sorts between them, but quite what it all means is never discussed, quite where it’s all going is never clear, if there’s a start and an end these feel fairly arbitrary, because what we mostly have here is the movement and the deserted atmosphere evoked by the title.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michelangelo Antonioni; Writers Antonioni and Tonino Guerra; Cinematographer Carlo Di Palma; Starring Monica Vitti, Richard Harris, Carlo Chionetti; Length 117 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 2 April 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 1998).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Criterion Sunday 404: Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

Those of us who follow the Criterion Collection know that their hearts are truly only with Japanese samurai movies and cheap American sci-fi/horror B movies. For the first hour of this I was willing to write off its ropy (though probably pretty good by contemporary standards) special effects, low budget stripped-back chamber drama aesthetic and ridiculous stranded-on-Mars survival scenario (rocks that emit oxygen when they burn! vegan sausages that grow in underwater pods! water!) as being simply bad. But the film grew on me, and ultimately it’s pretty good fun, ridiculous though it continues to be. How can I really take against any film with elements like those, and in some ways the evident budgetary constraints of some Californian desertscapes (Zabriskie Point, I believe) combined with artificial studio sets result in an almost elegant widescreen spectacle.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • One of the actors, Victor Lundin (who plays the space slave “Friday”), recorded a little song for his appearances at sci-fi conventions and that is here backed by images from the film.
  • There’s a nice little collection of still images too, from the production, from drawings in the original script and its later adaptation by Haskin, and from the advertising materials.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Byron Haskin; Writers Ib Melchior and John C. Higgins (based on the novel Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe); Cinematographer Winton C. Hoch; Starring Paul Mantee, Victor Lundin, Adam West; Length 110 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 6 March 2021.

Criterion Sunday 394: 砂の女 Suna no Onna (Woman in the Dunes aka Woman of the Dunes, 1964)

It’s remarkable to me that this film resulted in two Oscar nominations, given the kind of pabulum that usually translates to success in the mainstream awards shows. Still, perhaps it just jelled with something in the era that was looking for works of art that expanded the mind and challenged one’s consciousness of how things are. In part I suspect the film’s success is to do with how fruitful and open the metaphorical and allegorical readings can be, given the film’s minimalism in terms of plot. Even at two-and-a-half hours, there’s very little to recount at that level: a man who is a schoolteacher in Tokyo (Eiji Okada, his character unnamed until the very end of the film) takes a few days’ off to go looking for rare insects out by the sea, but finds himself kidnapped by villagers who put him down a big hole in the sand dunes to help a woman living there alone (Kyoko Kishida, also unnamed). Her only activity seems to be digging out the sand that builds up every single day and which threatens her home and her life, an evidently Sisyphean task with no apparent end. For his part he goes through all the stages of dealing with his situation, eventually sort of settling into some rationalised existence.

Now, whether you want to see this as a metaphor for post-war Japanese society, or indeed for the human condition in some more vaguer sense, or for the exploitation of human resources under capital (there’s also a side-plot about the sand being used as cheap and illegal building materials in the outside world), or perhaps you can see the hole as being a sort of feminine lair, or about traditional folk wisdom versus the rigorous scientific approach of the man — all these readings seem to be in there. The film is filled with beautiful shimmering monochrome surfaces, capturing sand implacable in its movement, bodies moving with a sort of eroticism under the grains of sand, sweat and fear moving towards a calmer zen. It also seems to me to be something of a horror film, with the woman as a wraith-like figure, possibly supernatural, and again there are shots and suggestions that seem to support that too. In any case, it’s a masterful film that derives much of its power from its simple and charged set-up, so endlessly reconfigurable.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hiroshi Teshigahara 勅使河原宏; Writer Kobo Abe 安部公房 (based on his novel); Cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa 瀬川浩; Starring Eiji Okada 岡田英次, Kyoko Kishida 岸田今日子; Length 147 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 26 May 1999 (and most recently on DVD at home, Wellington, Thursday 28 January 2021).

Criterion Sunday 350: Sedotta e abbandonata (Seduced and Abandoned, 1964)

After his earlier Divorce Italian Style (1961), Pietro Germi has another knockabout satirical comedy about Italian customs — or, rather, that should be specifically Sicilian codes of honour. Stefania Sandrelli once again plays a beautiful teenage girl, Agnese, being chased by a man, Peppino (Aldo Puglisi, playing the fiancé of her older sister), though this time once he’s had his way — and made her pregnant — he tries to abandon her, which occasions all the ensuing humour. Naturally there’s plenty of dark material too, given that his repeatedly stated reasons for not wanting to marry her are that she’s “a tramp” (even though it’s his actions which occasioned his own low estimation of her), but there’s no stopping the Agnese’s father, the family’s patriarch (Saro Urzì), from trying to save his family’s honour. This involves local law enforcement, judges, violence, loud arguments staged for the benefit of the gossiping public, and other machinations to ensure that she is supported and the rest of his daughters can be married off too. Sandrelli for her part is largely a meek and unsmiling woman at the edge of the frame, imagined in various ways by the men around her, with little of her own agency, because this is a film about the very macho traditions of the community. The police chief himself is given to covering up the island of Sicily with his hand, so sick is he of thinking about it. There’s lots of boisterous humour, but also a fair streak of bullying and misogyny exposed thereby, that makes this a very Italian film, I think.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a 7-minute interview with Sandrelli from 2002 in which she discusses making the film and working with Germi, as well as a short extract of her screen test (which she provides some commentary for).
  • Alongside Sandrelli’s interview is a similar length one with Lando Buzzanca, who played her brother in the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Pietro Germi; Writers Germi, Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli and Luciano Vincenzoni; Cinematographer Aiace Parolin; Starring Stefania Sandrelli, Saro Urzì, Aldo Puglisi, Lando Buzzanca; Length 117 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 31 August 2020.

Criterion Sunday 298: 肉体の門 Nijukai no Mon (Gate of Flesh, 1964)

Seijun Suzuki certainly made a surfeit of luridly-coloured borderline-exploitation films during the 1960s, directed with evident panache and a certain gonzo charm. The opening sequences of this particular film hurtle through at a breakneck pace, leaving scant moments for pause or reflection (whether on the part of the characters or the audience). The film is set in the post-war ruins of Tokyo, expressively evoked by a soundstage set that, with its saturated colours, at time suggests Fassbinder’s later Querelle — in its psycho-sexual undertones, if not quite to the homoerotic degree that Fassbinder takes it (though we get our share of Joe Shishido’s sweat-drenched naked body). If the events are lurid — about a band of tough prostitutes working amongst this post-war detritus, trying to eke out a living while flagrantly punishing any of their peers who breaks their code — they suggest a certain moral grey area that existed at the time. Many shots centre the US flag of occupation, and the presence of American military police is constant, as they patrol and are frequently mocked and physically abused and attacked by people who have very little food and few opportunities to get ahead, though already we see gangsters making a space for themselves in this uncertain economy. Scenes of sexual torture push it in darker directions, but the focus remains on the vicissitudes of difficult lives at a transitional moment in Japanese history.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Seijun Suzuki 鈴木清順; Writers Tajiro Tamura 田村泰次郎 and Goro Tanada 棚田吾郎; Cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine 峰重義; Starring Yumiko Nogawa 野川由美子, Joe Shishido 宍戸錠, Tomiko Ishii 石井トミコ, Kayo Matsuo 松尾嘉代; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 18 February 2020.

Criterion Sunday 226: 鬼婆 Onibaba (1964)

An odd slow-burn of a film, pitched somewhere between horror (of which it has elements) and the everyday ordinary tension of living under the fear of war and all its manifestations. It’s really something of a psychological thriller about two women slowly losing their minds under such circumstances, a mother and her daughter-in-law linked by their missing-in-action son/husband. There’s a jazz score and deep visceral high-contrast black-and-white cinematography, evoking a really tangible sense of place, the heat and humidity of the swamplands, the sweat dripping off bodies, and the punishment of death. This is a film which would surely bear rewatching on the big screen.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Kaneto Shindo 新藤兼人; Cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda 黒田清巳; Starring Nobuko Otowa 乙羽信子, Jitsuko Yoshimura 吉村実子, Kei Sato 佐藤慶; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 9 September 2018.

Criterion Sunday 215: Nóż w wodzie (Knife in the Water, 1962)

I’m not exactly rushing to watch old Roman Polanski films at this point in my life or his career, but it was up next in our Criterion watching, and, well, his debut is quite a taut piece about masculine brinkmanship. It’s a classic genre, of course, that genre wherein two men are vying over an attractive young woman (Jolanta Umecka) — in this case, one of them (the older man, played by Leon Niemczyk) is married to her and the other (Zygmunt Malanowicz) is a young hitchhiker and student who seems, well, a little bit sketchy, which means the title might start to suggest a horror/thriller film premise. Instead, what develops is a subtle story of shifting power dynamics aboard a pleasure yacht on a Polish lake, which never quite goes where you think it might, but also holds things in nice tension. There’s a fine use of tight close-ups and shots with several different planes of focus, but it’s a canny way to kick off a directing career (that really should consider wrapping itself up now).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roman Polanski; Writer Polanski, Jakub Goldberg and Jerzy Skolimowski; Cinematographer Jerzy Lipman; Starring Leon Niemczyk, Jolanta Umecka, Zygmunt Malanowicz; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 30 April 2018.

Criterion Sunday 184: “By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume One” (1954-2001)

This compendium of short films by the American experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage spans the range of his life, from his earliest works to after his diagnosis with the cancer which would claim his life in 2003. It was joined by a second volume some years later (as spine numbers 517 and 518), meaning this early instalment was retrospectively retitled as “Volume One” at that time. I present thoughts on some of the films below.

Desistfilm (1954) is my introduction to Brakhage’s work, like some kind of hepped-up beatnik film about a house party set to a hard-edged droning soundtrack, as people’s relationships break down. Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959) takes glimpses of early married life, but edits them together with fades to black in flickering light and comes across as nothing so much as a Lynchian dystopia of nightmares, with negative-image graphic sex interpolated. It doesn’t exactly paint a pleasant portrait of marriage.

Brakhage’s most famous work, though, probably remains Dog Star Man, made in four parts with a prelude (so: five separate short films). As a whole it’s a fevered rush of images, or at least that’s the sense that Part IV conjures, though the Prelude sets up the basic imagery of the title, where the “man” is both Brakhage himself, and also his newborn baby, and the “star” seems more like a solar plexus of body imagery and film manipulation effects. It’s all quite affecting in its way, but perplexing too. Part I has the most sustained sense of narrative, as Brakhage journeys futilely up (or along, depending on the camera angle) a snowy slope like a deranged Sisyphean hunter figure with his dog. Part II introduces the baby imagery more fully, with this and the remaining parts being relatively shorter.

Possibly the most distinctive film, both integrated into his oeuvre but also standing apart by virtue of its extreme subject matter, is The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971). I don’t really know how to ‘rate’ this, but for all that the subject matter may be gruesome (footage taken during actual autopsies), I found it difficult to take my eyes off the screen, because to do so would seem somehow disrespectful to what Brakhage is filming here: the very substance of physical being itself. I suppose at a metaphorical level this could be construed as another film about the technical aspects of filmmaking — editing and deconstructing — but yet it’s really, really not: it’s the literalisation of some kind of metaphysical consciousness that doesn’t simply reduce once-living beings to cadavers, but finds some kind of transcendent purity in our essential form. This is supported by the formal means Brakhage uses, the occasionally occluded camera angles, the complete lack of sound, the structure moving us gently from coroners measuring things into the more macabre material. I wouldn’t call it disturbing exactly, though not everyone would wish to sit through it, but it certainly makes all other filmed images seem a little unnecessary.

At the other end of the spectrum of life, Window Water Baby Moving (1959) films Brakhage’s wife giving birth to their baby daughter (or is that a spoiler?). It has a lyrical quality to it, to the colours and textures, that carries it through the bloody and painful aspects of what’s taking place, seeming to communicate at least something of what’s special to it. From the same year, Cat’s Cradle is riven with blood red textures, of sensuality perhaps or something more eerie… and a cat. Family figures in a later film, Kindering (1987), in which odd contorted images of children playing in their backyard create a strange, slightly creepy effect. With I… Dreaming (1988), he again hints at a dark loneliness, something that seems to have been taken up by Lynch when I think about the spaces of void (or I believe that’s the word he writes most often over his film here), but it doesn’t entirely work for me.

There are a few films which continue to explore the textures of filmed matter. In Mothlight (1963), the light of the camera passes directly through the biological material of a moth and its world, creating patterns and textures directly on the film. Returning to similar ideas, The Garden of Earthly Delights uses plant ephemera, and sort of achieves something of the same effect.

Sometimes the experimentalism of Brakhage’s films comes from the sense of the editing, but in The Wold Shadow (1972), it feels more like he’s experimenting with effects in the camera, or using a static image of trees in a forest as a base for improvisation on the theme of colour and light. It’s fascinating. More perplexing is The Stars Are Beautiful (1981), in which Brakhage recounts various creation myths relating to the stars, while his children (I am guessing) clip a chicken’s wings. I guess those birds won’t be getting anywhere near the stars.

There are also a large number of colour films, painted and collaged, but the first on the set (1987’s The Dante Quartet) isn’t my favourite. However, it has (unsurprisingly, Dante-esque) headings to its sections. Somewhat a precursor to that is Night Music (1986), thirty seconds of colour, big and bold. Meanwhile, the colours just seem a little more dissipated in Glaze of Cathexis (1990), though it’s the film of his which sounds most like the name of a black metal band (yes, it turns out someone has taken it for such), while Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1990) sounds like the title of that band’s first album. Once again, it does some lovely things with colour and light, as you’d expect. A few years later, Study in Color and Black and White (1993) is more dark than colour, more black than white.

Having watched a series of Brakhage’s short experiments with light and colour hand-painted directly onto film, the 10+ minute running length of Untitled (For Marilyn) (1992) suggests it might somehow be wearyingly epic by comparison, and yet this ended up being the one I most loved (alongside Lovesong). It has the textures, the colours, the feeling. It’s the whole package, and is dedicated to his wife. Black Ice (1994) is another of his films which, when watched alongside some sludgy doomy metal (as I was doing, given most of these films are silent), starts to feel like a crack in the cosmos, through which snippets of light and colour seem to make their way. Cosmic shapes appear in Stellar (1993) as well, extensions of Brakhage’s work with painting on film, and perhaps these are just suggested by the title, but there is a sort of harmony of the spheres to it all.

In Crack Glass Eulogy (1991), after a long run of his colour and light films, seeing filmed images seems rather a novelty. It has a spare, haunting, elegiac quality, like night vision, like surveillance. By the end of the decade, though, in The Dark Tower (1999), the darkness threatens to overwhelm everything else, perhaps suggestive of his failing vision. Likewise Comingled Containers (1996, which Criterion’s sleeve notes correct to “commingled”) feels like a blend of photography (water imagery) and the filmmaker’s manipulations of light and colour in a way that is rather more productive than some of Brakhage’s other works, but with a similar undertow of darkness.

The final film on the set is the most recent one, Lovesong (2001), made only a couple of years before Brakhage’s death from cancer. What I like most about this film is that it feels like a pure expression of paint on film. It seems so fresh, wet and glistening on the surface of the celluloid. It’s a film that has hundreds if not thousands of individual artworks, any one of which could be framed, but together seem beautiful and mysterious, like so much of Brakhage’s work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Cinematography Stan Brakhage.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 February, Sunday 4 March and Sunday 11 March 2018.

Desistfilm (1954) | Length 7 minutes.
Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959) | Length 11 minutes.
Dog Star Man (1961-64) | Length 75 minutes [1001 Films].

The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971) | Length 32 minutes [Rosenbaum 1000]

Cat’s Cradle (1959) | Length 7 minutes.
Window Water Baby Moving (1959) | Length 13 minutes.
Mothlight (1963) | Length 4 minutes.
Eye Myth (1967) | Length 1 minute.
The Wold Shadow (1972) | Length 3 minutes.
The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981) | Length 2 minutes.

The Stars Are Beautiful (1974) | Length 19 minutes.

Kindering (1987) | Length 3 minutes.
I… Dreaming (1988) | Length 7 minutes.
The Dante Quartet (1989) | Length 7 minutes.
Night Music (1986) | Length 1 minute.
Rage Net (1988) | Length 1 minute.

Glaze of Cathexis (1990) | Length 3 minutes.

Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1990) | Length 9 minutes.

Untitled (For Marilyn) (1992) | Length 11 minutes.

Black Ice (1994) | Length 2 minutes.
Study in Color and Black and White (1993) | Length 2 minutes.
Stellar (1993) | Length 3 minutes.
Crack Glass Eulogy (1991) | Length 7 minutes.
The Dark Tower (1999) | Length 3 minutes.
Comingled Containers (1996) | Length 3 minutes.

Lovesong (2001) | Length 11 minutes.

Criterion Sunday 176: The Killers (1946/1964)

This Criterion release bundles together two adaptations of the Ernest Hemingway short story from 1927, each separated by almost twenty years and with a different generation of Hollywood direction, though it’s the first adaptation that really sticks out. After all, there’s something immensely satisfying about this key early film noir picture, and it’s not just the high-contrast shadows thrown across the screen, or the world-weary way that Burt Lancaster’s “Swede” meets his death (that’s not a spoiler by the way: that’s the set-up of the film). It’s not in the writing either (although excellent) and not just the first scenes in the diner (which are the ones taken from Hemingway’s short story) which leads into a backstory of intrigue that as it unfolds doubles-down on its double-crosses by piling them on thick and fast. No, what’s satisfying is that all of these elements come together with the excellent noir acting, all that heavy-lidded sense of fatalistic doom conveyed by Lancaster and Gardner but also all the character actors who round out the cast. Even when the plot’s events start to seem like they’re getting out of hand, the film keeps it all in check, and all the character types that seem so familiar to us now are all presented new and fresh.

Don Siegel’s remake may not perhaps be the equal of the Siodmak film (which the producer originally wanted Siegel to direct, apparently), but there’s certainly something to Don Siegel’s reimagining. Despite the film’s title and trailer, there’s not very much left of Ernest Hemingway’s original short story here except the sense in which a man fatalistically accepts his own death at the hands of the title’s killers. Thereupon these two, primarily Lee Marvin (always excellent), take it upon themselves to find out why he was killed, and uncover a ring of gangsters led by Ronald Reagan. The film’s plot takes about half the movie to kick in, and as a film, it feels quite different — less a noir than a doomed romance. It also proves that Reagan was much more convincing as a bad guy, a sad realisation to come with his last performance (maybe if he’d tried it earlier and found more acting success, we all could have been spared his political ambitions). Still, as a film this is a watchable piece of high-toned 60s murder mystery which seems to pave the way for Marvin into the greater, yet somehow stylistically reminiscent, Point Blank a few years later.

Criterion Extras: Joining these two is a film primarily known now as Andrei Tarkovsky’s first (student) film from 1956, although it was co-directed by three film students. It takes on only the events of the short story (clearly influenced visually by Robert Siodmak’s 1946 adaptation) and re-presents it, including some of the racist language that Siodmak’s work had omitted. Indeed, the scenes with the black(face) cook, even at this remove, seem pointlessly racist, but as a film this still shows some flair with its staging.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 22 October 2017.

The Killers (1946)
Director Robert Siodmak; Writer Anthony Veiller (based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway); Cinematographer Woody Bredell; Starring Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien; Length 103 minutes.

The Killers (1964)
Director Don Siegel; Writer Gene L. Coon (based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway); Cinematographer Richard L. Rawlings; Starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Clu Gulager, John Cassavetes, Ronald Reagan; Length 95 minutes.