Criterion Sunday 517: “By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume Two” (1955-2003)

After a first volume some years earlier, Criterion has added this second one, covering much the same range of years as the first, from some of his earliest works to his very last. I’m not sure if it necessarily adds more depth to the casual viewer’s understand of Brakhage as an artist, but it’s fascinating to see more of these little snatched windows into his life and artistry.

A lot of those early films seem more overtly autobiographical than the more abstract later works. The earliest included here, The Wonder Ring (1955), is a film glimpsed through the windows of a passing train, life reflected on the surface of that image, evoking a world that’s disappearing (this train line soon to be demolished) in a world so far from now and yet so tangibly there. The Dead (1960) takes in Paris, superimposing images of cemeteries (a sort of spectral double vision), a river boat ride and other assorted flashes of the old world, though it didn’t really cohere for me. In Two: Creeley/McClure (1965), the first of two portraits passes in a typical way for early Brakhage, with languorous superimpositions and negative images inserted, but this short piece is all about the second portrait, an all too brief ecstatic experience, literal flashes of a man. Rounding out the first programme of films, 23rd Psalm Branch (1967) is almost an hour long, a frenzied rush of images — of corpses (initially), of bombing, of Nazis, but also tender images of families and home, of being at the beach. But that shock of war and the horrors of conflict (this film was made during and largely as a response to Vietnam) means that even the positive images are pulled down into the darkness of Brakhage’s vision. It feels almost agitprop but of course remains an avant-garde text, a scream of a silent experimental film.

The second programme of films opens with one of his more renowned works, Scenes from Under Childhood, Section One (1967). It seems to me there’s a penetrating darkness to the vision of childhood here, the images snatched from black leader, flashes of red, a strange sense of dislocation and eeriness. Maybe that’s the soundtrack (apparently Brakhage preferred it without, but there’s an optional one and I do prefer it to silence — what even is “silent” as a film concept, really, for those of us who live in the world, where there are constantly noises in the background?). Anyway, this is a potent poetic opening to what is a three-part film (the other two are not included here), as strong as anything in this period of his work. The Machine of Eden (1970) follows it as a bit of a landscape piece with glorious glowering skies, albeit in an impressionistic collage. However, I like the way that Stan Brakhage really mined his domestic life in this period of his filmmaking, reflected in Star Garden (1974). He must have been quite an intense dad to grow up with but he was always there filming his kids, his home, the special reflection of light through blinds, through paper, the edge of a dress, a spectral presence always because isn’t all film ultimately about light? Rounding out the group, Desert (1976) is a short film that I gather is more about the idea of a desert, expertly evoked with the light and filters, except for those brief moments when it just seems grey and suburban.

For the third programme of films, there is a movement towards the abstract, starting with The Process (1972), as images of people both become colour fields and are intercut with flashing blocks of colour suggesting (as I gather it) one’s closed eyelids and the idea of recalling something. There’s death in Burial Path (1978) in the shape of a bird, placed carefully in a cardboard box, and then there’s the recollection of death, the camera moving on to other things before looping back around to the bird. The duplicity in Duplicity III (1980) is presumably the spectacle of theatre as put on by his children and their classmates, but there’s almost an epic quality here. That sense is aided by showing these scenes alongside animals, a sort of contrast between lies and unadorned truth that evokes something essential. Four animals are intercut with one another in The Domain of the Moment (1977), though I don’t think that snake is making friends with the mouse. There’s a mystery and a beauty to his editing here. Of course, maybe you just need to be in the right mood to appreciate any abstract experimental film but Murder Psalm (1980) was very much it when I watched it: a collage of images, textures and grains of film and video, the shock of life and of death, the play of children and of armies, juxtaposing these eternal themes under an evocative title that suggests a continuity of behaviour from the humiliated child onwards and outwards through history. Rounding out the programme, one does wonder how Criterion decided which of the 20 films in Arabic Numeral Series to present. Ostensibly 12 (1982) is an abstract series of lights piercing the darkness, shimmering and hazy as if reflected through many layers and then gone. It has its own hypnotic pulse and I wonder again at the deeper meaning.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Cinematography Stan Brakhage.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 18 March, Saturday 19 March, Monday 21 March, Sunday 3 April, Saturday 14 May, Saturday 27 August, Wednesday 2 November, Thursday 3 November and Friday 4 November 2022.

The Wonder Ring (1955) | Length 6 minutes.
The Dead (1960) | Length 11 minutes.
Two: Creeley/McClure (1965) | Length 4 minutes.
23rd Psalm Branch (1967) | Length 67 minutes.
Scenes from Under Childhood, Section One (1967) | Length 24 minutes [Rosenbaum 1000].
The Machine of Eden (1970) | Length 11 minutes.

Star Garden (1974) | Length 21 minutes.

Desert (1976) | Length 11 minutes.
The Process (1972) | Length 9 minutes.

Burial Path (1978) | Length 9 minutes.

Duplicity III (1980) | Length 23 minutes.
The Domain of the Moment (1977) | Length 15 minutes.

Murder Psalm (1980) | Length 17 minutes.

Arabic Numeral Series 12 (1982) | Length 18 minutes.
Visions in Meditation #1 (1989) | Length 17 minutes.

Visions in Meditation #2 (Mesa Verde) (1989) | Length 17 minutes.

Visions in Meditation #3 (Plato’s Cave) (1990) | Length 17 minutes.
Visions in Meditation #4 (D.H. Lawrence) (1990) | Length 18 minutes.

Unconscious London Strata (1982) | Length 23 minutes.

Boulder Blues and Pearls and… (1992) | Length 23 minutes.
The Mammals of Victoria (1994) | Length 35 minutes.
From: First Hymn to the Night – Novalis (1994) | Length 3 minutes.
I Take These Truths (1995) | Length 18 minutes.
The Cat of the Worm’s Green Realm (1997) | Length 15 minutes.
Yggdrasill: Whose Roots Are Stars in the Human Mind (1997) | Length 17 minutes.
“…” Reel Five (1998) | Length 15 minutes.
Persian #1 (1999) | Length 2 minutes.

Persian #2 (1999) | Length 2 minutes.

Persian #3 (1999) | Length 2 minutes.

Chinese Series (2003) | Length 3 minutes.

Criterion Sunday 483: Repulsion (1965)

This is a dark, atmospheric horror film, or perhaps more a psychological terror film, because much of the pain and panic we see is inside Catherine Deneuve’s heroine Carole. She seems traumatised by something, and while it’s not something that we ever see or is ever explained, it seems fairly clear that it goes back some way into her past, causing her to move through the world as if in a fugue state. That’s what the film’s camera is attempting to capture, along with a jarring score, that constantly fixates on small details that take on something greater, something horrific in the way that it all cuts together. And while nothing particularly shocking happens outwardly — though there are some deeply unpleasant men (even if a lot of their behaviour is just that of 60s London) — the accretion of details mount up to something tense, putting us inside Carole’s mind, inflicted by a constant state of terror. As an English-language outing from its director (Roman Polanski, who would go on to greater renown and of course infamy) it has a peculiar focus and a power that follows on from his (Polish language) debut Knife in the Water.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roman Polanski; Writers Polanski, Gérard Brach and David Stone; Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor; Starring Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, Yvonne Furneaux, John Fraser; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 28 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 460: Simón del desierto (Simon of the Desert, 1965)

I must have first watched this 25 years ago, and for all its short length (a mere 45 minutes, apparently intended as just one segment of the then-popular portmanteau film format), I still vividly recall Satan giving a hefty kick to a small lamb as it bleatingly disappeared to the upper-right of the frame. Well, that’s still there and it’s still funny, but around it is a coruscatingly bitter attack on religious pomposity, as our titular figure stands like his dad Simeon Stylites on a pillar in the desert. He sets himself up as some kind of holier-than-thou religious martyr but really he seems pretty pleased to be revered and accepts those who confirm him in this belief. Meanwhile, for all his high-minded ideals, he finds himself pretty easily tempted by the Devil (who appears as a woman, of course). Buñuel was hardly averse to pricking at the hypocrisy of religious figures, but the medium-length running time means it never outstays its welcome.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel; Writers Buñuel and Julio Alejandro; Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa; Starring Claudio Brook, Silvia Pinal; Length 45 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 11 September 2021 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, July 1998).

Criterion Sunday 452: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)

I’ve seen a number of films that occupy this terrain, whether direct adaptations of Le Carré (such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) or other works that sit in the same talky glum espionage vein (something like Bridge of Spies, I suppose). It’s not a genre I necessarily warm to, and usually like my spying to be a little bit more silly and fun (like Bourne, if not quite Bond), but there’s something rather elegant to this mid-60s adaptation of a story set deep into the Cold War era. It’s a tale of spies crossing and double-crossing one another in ways that don’t even always make sense to the spies themselves as they’re happening (like Richard Burton’s titular character, Alec Leamas) and part of the drama is just trying to keep up with who knows what and who’s working for whom at any given point. I didn’t expect this to particularly appeal to me, but it held my attention, and along the way there is some fine monochrome cinematography and gliding camera shots — never perhaps quite as bold as the introductory nod towards Touch of Evil, but always with a strong sense of the frosty sangfroid of these suited, spectacled men vying for the upper hand.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Martin Ritt; Writers Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper (based on the novel by John Le Carré); Cinematographer Oswald Morris; Starring Richard Burton, Oskar Werner, Claire Bloom, Cyril Cusack, Rupert Davies; Length 112 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Wednesday 4 August 2021.

Criterion Sunday 421: Pierrot le Fou (1965)

I’ve always had this film pinned in my head — having seen it a couple of times 20 years ago — as one that’s fun, and rewatching it again, it is, mostly. I feel like I should mention right up-front that there’s a rather hideously racist interlude with Anna Karina in a painted yellow face making some mock-Vietnamese noises, and even if it’s intended to be part of an anti-American satirical rehashing of the conflict in Vietnam, it can’t help but disrupt the film’s tone. Which is otherwise, as mentioned above, pretty playful. It builds on the saturated sun-drenched coastal resort colours of Le Mépris, and sets up some of the apocalyptic imagery that was to come in Godard’s career (in Week End, most notably), as his two criminal-lovers on the run rehearse a sort of Bonnie & Clyde script with a metatextual commentary and little asides to camera, but Godard never repeats the same trick twice, making it feel even a little exhausting at times, as things head towards their colourfully bleak ending. The deeper socio-political dimensions are more evident in some of his other films, but Godard was always most playful about genre and film itself, creating his own playbook of self-referentiality, than about empathy for people’s lives in the world (which may explain the yellowface). Certainly these characters never quite feel like much more than an author’s conceits, but Anna Karina (and Belmondo too, in his way) has an ever-likeable charm that suggests more than the film sometimes does.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina; Length 110 minutes.

Seen at City Gallery, Wellington, Friday 10 September 1999 (before that on VHS at the university, Wellington, February 1999, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Wednesday 28 April 2021).

Criterion Sunday 420: Le Bonheur (1965)

This is a bold film, not just because of its saturated colours (shades of Varda’s husband Demy), but because it’s open to interpretations. On a surface level it depicts a happy marriage between two beautiful young people (real-life couple Jean-Claude and Claire Drouot), but the husband feels attracted to another woman (Marie-France Boyer) and begins an affair with her, which itself is happy, and then he makes a grand speech about how this is all part of life and the love he has to give is infinite and it’s making everyone happy, and… well… that’s hardly all that’s going on, because it feels like a pretty angry film really, and one that is pointedly angry about this state of affairs. Yet it’s probably possible to miss this, and to read it any number of ways; I just choose to hear the rage.

Part of what’s challenging about Varda’s film, though, is what it doesn’t give you — it doesn’t give you heroes and villains; it doesn’t provide any real voice to its female characters; it doesn’t make clear what happens to the protagonist’s wife near the end — but I see that as part of what it’s doing in terms of satire. Because at a certain level, this is just presenting the events as you might get in any kind of romantic drama made by a man, in which a husband falls for a new woman and makes a new life with her. However, you could hardly mistake this for a film which is uncritical or unaware of the operation of patriarchy. For a start, the filming and montage work is so clear: the man’s first coffee with the woman he meets is in a cafe, where the camera cuts to a sign on the wall reading “temptation” and then frames her head with it very carefully in the background, with a similar sign for the man. All of their meetings, in fact, get a fragmented montage style, as they move through spaces like two figures in a cubist painting. What’s most challenging of all the formal techniques, though, I think, is the way the tone never veers from what the title suggests: bright saturated colours, classical music, idyllic pastoral scenes of happy family life and just constant smiles throughout as the husband emphasises his happiness, and the abundance of love he has to give. Except for a brief silent moment of fleeting pain, everything has the same bland sense of bonheur, as if this could be an ad for a travel company or some kind of lifestyle brand. But underneath it all is, clearly, rage.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Agnès Varda; Cinematographers Claude Beausoleil and Jean Rabier; Starring Jean-Claude Drouot, Marie-France Boyer, Claire Drouot; Length 80 minutes.

Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 6 August 2018 (and on DVD at a friend’s home, Wellington, Friday 23 April 2021).

Criterion Sunday 415: The Naked Prey (1965)

The idea of a man on the run for his life reminds me a bit of an early Criterion Collection film, The Most Dangerous Game (1932), although this is much less camply genre-inflected. After all, it seems to be rehearsing some form of colonial politics, albeit as seen by the white guy at its centre (writer/director/actor Cornel Wilde). For an international co-production set in Africa in the 1960s, I could say it’s not as racist as I had feared, but that’s not to say it’s not deeply problematic, just that I’ve seen much worse (sadly; another Criterion film, Sanders of the River, comes to mind). Visually it has a sort of National Geographic view of tribal rituals, and while it allows its tribespeople the dignity of some agency, and credits them prominently, there’s still a slightly leering view of half-naked people, and the lack of subtitles for their speech puts it at some remove from their point of view. Still, it integrates the local musical traditions quite nicely, and there’s a certain degree of thrill in the chase, even if it all stays fairly firmly on the side of the colonialists.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Cornel Wilde; Writers Clint Johnston and Don Peters; Cinematographer H.A.R. Thomson; Starring Cornel Wilde, Ken Gampu; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 11 April 2021.

Criterion Sunday 333: I pugni in tasca (Fists in the Pocket, 1965)

There’s a certain strain of Italian cinema in the 60s that seemed to deal with psychological character studies of individuals straining against societal expectations or mores (I’m thinking of Pasolini’s Theorem, but I’m sure there are others like this). I only feel sure of it, because I’m equally sure I have difficulty really connecting with these guys, though I suppose at a superficial level they look like me (well, they’re usually younger, if I’m honest). Still, there’s a lot going on with Alessandro, “Ale” for short (Lou Castel) in this film, as he finds himself increasingly set against his family, increasingly wound up by their inability to function (hence the title’s imagery). He thinks about killing his mother and developmentally challenged younger brother, as a favour to his sister/girlfriend (it’s a bit unclear quite how Paola Pitagora’s Giulia fits into his life) and older, more “normal” (if dull) brother (Marino Masé)… and slowly these ideas start to coalesce into action, shocking when it happens. The idea of how his ideas of a better life conflict with societal norms are sort of at the core of the film, and of course this makes him a deeply dislikable individual. Of course, maladjusted young men with bad ideas, sadly, will probably always be with us.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Marco Bellocchio; Cinematographer Alberto Marrama; Starring Lou Castel, Paola Pitagora, Marino Masé; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 10 July 2020 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, November 1999).

Criterion Sunday 312: 異聞猿飛佐助 Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke (Samurai Spy, 1965)

Masahiro Shinoda is a filmmaker who makes distinctive pieces of work, and as such has a place at the forefront of the Japanese New Wave (amongst which Oshima and Imamura are probably the best known exponents). His 1969 film Double Suicide has already come up in the Criterion Collection, and it’s an odd kabuki-like performance piece that belies its gruesome title (and I confess it rather confounded me). You would think that the period swordplay chanbara film genre would be more straightforward — and there are indeed some bravura sequences of action and fighting — but Shinoda has a lot of the same visual style, cutting up the action into vignettes and rendering some sequences like abstract works of art in all their monochrome style. Unlike say the Samurai trilogy of Inagaki, or some other key texts set in this era (at the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate in the early-17th century), the fighting isn’t noble and elegant, but rather can be bloody and brutal, with hidden daggers and throwing stars (usually more the province of the less-exalted shinobi or ninja warriors), and protracted fight sequences that lack the grace of some other Japanese works. Still, there’s plenty of style and you can see throughlines to a lot of modern cinema in the way Shinoda stages his action, even if the historical details and names can get a little overwhelming (though I’ve found it necessary to pause to do a fair bit of Wikipedia research at the start of most Japanese period films). This is one of the more striking examples of the genre.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masahiro Shinoda 篠田正浩; Writer Yoshiyuki Fukuda 福田善之; Cinematographer Masao Kosugi 小杉正雄; Starring Koji Takahashi 高橋幸治, Eiji Okada 岡田英次, Tetsuro Tamba 丹波哲郎, Misako Watanabe 渡辺美佐子; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 April 2020.

Criterion Sunday 311: 獣の剣 Kedamono no Ken (Sword of the Beast, 1965)

Having recently rewatched the Jason Bourne trilogy, it’s clearer how some of the generic beats of that story have endured even for half a century. As this film opens, a man who has been left for dead is seen blinking into life, as he is charged by his own clan with a murder and must go on the run. We do eventually learn he is the samurai Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira), as well as who he has killed and the reason why. In transpires that Gennosuke was involved in an attempted reform of antiquated values within his clan that has gone awry (this is after all set at the end of the Tokugawa period, and the American Commodore Perry, instrumental in the opening up of Japan near the end of this period, is given a namecheck). When he runs into a samurai stealing gold from another wealthy clan, he perceives something of a kindred spirit, though all relationships in this film (as one feels was likely the case amongst real samurai) are cagy and tentative. There are strong women in this film who are treated badly, and there are men too who try to uphold some form of honour, but by the end it seems more clear that there can be no viable reckoning of honour in such a broken system, so all that unites these disparate people is the sword. However, it’s generally a rather more jolly picture than Samurai Rebellion, and has a jaunty sensibility that suggests some of Kurosawa’s samurai films.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • None at all, save for the booklet essay.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hideo Gosha 五社英雄; Writers Gosha and Eizaburo Shiba 柴英三郎; Cinematographer Toshitada Tsuchiya 土屋俊忠; Starring Mikijiro Hira 平幹二朗, Takeshi Kato 加藤武, Go Kato 加藤剛, Shima Iwashita 篠田志麻; Length 85 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 19 April 2020.