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 391: if…. (1968)

After recently watching Spice World and 1933’s The Invisible Man, I feel I already have a sense of how small, insular and close-minded an island Britain can be. Perhaps those weren’t the lessons to be learned from those particular films, but an assessment of the British (or English) character is somewhat in the background, and it’s the same here in a portrayal of the kind of education our ruling classes get in the UK. It’s a satire of course, but even when it’s going over-the-top (there’s a priest in a drawer! there’s an entire stash of weaponry!) it’s never particularly untethered from the reality — or at least how I imagine it to be (though the writers of this film were certainly drawing on lived experience). Even the very removed microcosm of school life I endured showed some of the hallmarks of the society depicted here, though obviously never nearly as brutal. It’s also rather awkward watching this in the era of incels and domestic terrorism, as you get the feeling that what Mick (Malcolm McDowell) and his compatriots are doing isn’t so far removed from that paradigm either. Still, given the system they’re rebelling against here, there is still an underlying level of sympathy for Mick, and the satire remains pointed. It’s no wonder it caused such a stir at the time, given the nature of politicised student violence and the incipient revolution in the air back in 1968, but there’s still a revolutionary zeal to it watching even now, alongside that black comedy.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lindsay Anderson; Writer David Sherwin; Cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček; Starring Malcolm McDowell, Richard Warwick, David Wood, Robert Swann, Christine Noonan; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 22 January 2021 (and on VHS at home at some point in the distant past).

Criterion Sunday 360: “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Two Takes” (1971/2005)

This Criterion release collects two films, and I present below reviews of both of them. The first is listed as 1968 on the packaging, and I discuss the dates below, but I have listed it as 1971 because that’s the date on the film. Of course, strictly-speaking it was never publicly screened for a number of decades, so there’s a case that it should be much later.


Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One (1971)

There is some question about the date of this film: it’s generally listed as 1968 (including on the director’s website), but the date of production that shows up on-screen at the end of the film, and on the Wikipedia page and elsewhere, it states it wasn’t completed until 1971, and certainly doesn’t seem to have been screened publicly for quite some time after that (1991 according to AllMovie). Then again, this is hardly a straightforward film by any means, being ostensibly a documentary but one about a film-within-a-film (called Over the Cliff, being made with a variety of actors tested out, seemingly in the style of a Cassavetes picture). It’s also a film in which even its documentary subjects — the filmmakers themselves, the loudest among them soon becoming Bob Rosen (the production manager), and Jonathan Gordon (one of the soundmen), along with the director — may be characters or versions of themselves that don’t match reality. Most straightforwardly this can be seen in the character of the director, Bill Greaves (William Greaves), who seems rather coarse and even a bit flamboyant at times, but then we also see his crew sitting around discussing him, casting aspersions on his quality as a director, but also aware they’re being filmed and suggesting even that he may be outside the room listening (and all of these may well be true, along with the possibility that this is a staged scene). And of course there’s that extra level whereby the African-American director is being discussed and picked apart by a (largely) white crew, putting his actions in a spotlight that’s matched against their own expectations. The film, then, which frequently splits into two or three different images, openly toys with the limits of its own fictions (and truths), and does so in an evocative, constantly questioning sort of way that’s appealing to anyone who grew up as an audience regularly confronting such issues in self-consciously metatextual films of the 1990s and 2000s.


Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2½ (2005)

It’s fairly clear at this point — even to the participants in the film — that this long-delayed follow-up to Take One lacks something of the immediacy of the first. It uses the footage shot in 1968 as a starting point, picking up from the final shot of the first film (over that film’s end credits) to lead directly into the opening credits of this one, following a brief crew introduction on a NYC balcony. It picks up with another two actors rehearsing the roles of Freddie and Alice, in this case a mixed-race pairing (unlike the two we see for most of Take One‘s running time). There’s half an hour following of footage from 1968 of what was presumably originally going to be Take Two (the director William Greaves even makes reference to it at one point, suggesting he had a very clear idea of how these films would have been delineated back then, had he had the funding). We then very briskly skip forward some 30 years to a Q&A following a screening of the original film, at which Steve Buscemi makes an appearance (as a champion of the original and a producer on its follow-up). The dynamics remain fairly similar, with crew discussions taking place without the director, and then with footage from Central Park of the filming of the two actors, who have returned, older and greyer, to reprise their characters. It seems more interested in the dynamic between them than the original film ever was, but then this one lacks the on-screen charisma of production manager Bob Rosen (though Jonathan the soundman is back). It’s a sweet film, and hardly ever boring exactly, but it feels more like a reflective tangent to the urgency and immediacy of the original film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
[Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One] Director/Writer William Greaves; Cinematographers Steven Larner and Terence Macartney-Filgate; Starring Don Fellows, Patricia Ree Gilbert, William Greaves; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at home (Criterion Channel streaming), London, Monday 29 June 2020.

[Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2½] Director/Writer William Greaves; Cinematographers Steven Larner, Terence Macartney-Filgate, Henry Adebonojo, Phil Parmet and Jonathan Weaver; Starring Audrey Heningham, Shannon Baker, William Greaves; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Criterion Channel streaming), London, Monday 29 June 2020.

Neun Leben hat die Katze (The Cat Has Nine Lives, 1968)

Just a quick extra review of a late-60s New German Cinema experiment that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, but still impressed me as something odd and interesting. It was presented as part of a touring programme in the UK of less well-known films by women directors breaking the mould.


What a very strange film, largely due to its experimental narrative form, which intercuts these stories of women (Katharina and Anne) in a sort of associative way, just little shards or shreds of narrative, sometimes representing their fantasies as far as I can tell, sometimes humorous vignettes. It’s very hard to describe really, except that it seems to present a subjective view of women’s experiences that is both of a piece with other experiments in the New German Cinema but also quite apart from the usual patriarchal constructions of desire. I’d want to watch it again before claiming to understand any more about it, but it certainly has its heady late-60s quality.

The Cat Has Nine Lives film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ula Stöckl; Cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann; Starring Liane Hielscher, Kristine De Loup; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Tuesday 7 August 2018.

Three Short Films by Sarah Maldoror

I think if we’ve all learned anything from the last few decades of study and research about women in cinema is that there has been a paucity of women creating cinema since the silent era, i.e. from when cinema started to be seen as a viable industry and not just a hobby or a sideshow. This means a lot of women’s work in cinema has been in non-commercial spheres like the experimental avant garde, or else in oppositional contexts, and that is where we find the French/West Indian filmmaker Sarah Maldoror, who chose her surname and began to make films with her Angolan nationalist husband after having been an assistant on The Battle of Algiers. That first short I review below was also made in Algeria, but is specifically about the Angolan situation, before its independence. She made a feature film a few years later, Sambizanga (again filmed in absentia in the Republic of Congo/Brazzaville, but about Angola), which I will be covering shortly in my Global Cinema series when we get to Angola. Sadly, Maldoror died earlier this year, in April 2020, as a result of complications from COVID-19, at the age of 90. The three short films below were made available for a short time by Another Gaze journal, in support of a panel featuring her daughters, poetry recital, and a discussion amongst film critics, which was insightful and also, for me, rather unusual in centering the experiences of African and Caribbean women.

Continue reading “Three Short Films by Sarah Maldoror”

Criterion Sunday 313: 斬る Kiru (Kill!, 1968)

Oddly enough, this sort of stands aside from the rest of the recent run of samurai chanbara films featured in the Criterion Collection, as it has broad comic elements to its (rather elaborate and confusing) story of rival clans fighting one another. Even more to the forefront is its reliance on tropes from the Western (as perhaps filtered through Italy, given the Morricone-like musical cues). Set in the mid-19th century, our two starving heroes wander into a one-horse town (or one-chicken town perhaps), beset by squalling winds, like some blasted valley in the American West, and stumble across a local power struggle. As Genta, the ex-samurai turned yakuza/vagrant, Tatsuya Nakadai exudes a raucous energy, recalling Mifune in Seven Samurai (this film even has its own group of seven rebel samurai, presumably another of its parodic elements, though the source author is the same as Kurosawa/Mifune’s 1962 collaboration Sanjuro). However, Genta has a more self-knowing air, as he brushes off courtly introductions and chuckles at the desperate desires of farmer Hanjiro (Etsushi Takahashi) to become a samurai. The rest of the plot is too complicated to recount here, but suffice to say it’s the local chamberlain Ayuzawa (Shigeru Koyama) who’s the bad guy, playing the factions off one another. It has all the fight scenes you might expect, but the knockabout comedy moves into different, and rather refreshing, territory.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Kihachi Okamoto 岡本喜八; Writers Akira Murao 村尾昭 and Okamoto (based on the short story 砦山の十七日 Torideyama no Jushichinichi “17 Days at Fort Mountain” by Shugoru Yamamoto 山本周五郎); Cinematographer Rokuro Nishigaki 西垣六郎; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Etsushi Takahashi 高橋悦史, Shigeru Koyama 神山繁, Yuriko Hoshi 星由里子; Length 114 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 May 2020.

董夫人 Dong furen (The Arch, 1968)

If you’re trying to find positives about Amazon Prime — assuming you already have it for whatever reason, and not as a way of trying to encourage you to sign up — it certainly has more interesting older films than Netflix. BFI Player has the quality older titles, but Amazon has a random selection of various films that you may need to search for because they’ll never come up, but if you’re looking for old noirs or obscure 60s or 70s titles you can’t find anywhere else, Amazon can be helpful. This late-60s Hong Kong film was directed by a woman, one of the few in that period, and it certainly sticks out from the usual kinds of stuff that is nowadays what we think of when we cast our minds back to 1960s HK filmmaking.


This feels like some kind of sui generis outlier to Hong Kong filmmaking of the period, though I confess I’m hardly (not even remotely) an expert. However, it’s certainly striking film — partly shot by Subrata Mitra, best known for his work on Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy, and partly edited by Les Blank — and those credits suggest a genesis against a wider regional background of arthouse film practice. The fact that the film is also directed by a woman seems unusual too, and indeed the film is focused around an upstanding woman within the community, Mrs Dong (whose name provides the original language title for the film, played by Lisa Lu), in whose honour a ceremonial arch is being planned (requiring permission from the Emperor). The way that she exists within the community, and the structures of power that impinge upon her, are among the themes the film is dealing with, how she must subordinate her own desires to that of the community, and though it has a period setting, there are hints within the film that the filmmaker intends it as a more contemporary reflection. It’s a beautiful film, though, as you might expect from its cinematographer, with an expressive score (even if the subtitles in the print I saw were a little patchy).

The Arch film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Tang Shu Shuen 唐書璇 [aka “Cecile Tang”]; Cinematographer Subrata Mitra সুব্রত মিত্র; Starring Lisa Lu 卢燕, Roy Chiao 乔宏; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Friday 14 June 2019.

La hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1968)

Here on Filmcentric, I am doing a week of South American cinema (focused on Argentina) as La flor (2018) is being released cinematically in the UK on Friday 13 September, a film which is longer even than the one I’m discussing here. Filmmaking in South America really came to international attention in the revolutionary 1960s, under the label “Third Cinema”, and Argentine filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino were key amongst the figures within this movement, publishing a manifesto called Hacia un tercer cine (“Toward a Third Cinema”) the year after this three-part film. One of the key tenets was to resist neocolonialist and capitalist forces, and challenge viewers to include an awareness of class differences and power structures within the entertainment they consumed.


It’s clear at least that watching a film like this 50 years on in the institutionalised setting of the British Film Institute is a quite different experience from what the filmmakers intended, and probably effectively changes some of its meaning. After all, it’s a film that constantly mentions the necessity for the audience to continue the discussion outside the film, to reflect on it and complete its meaning themselves, and even includes intertitles exhorting them to stop the film and have discussions at various points. Instead, my impression is of an inexhaustible supply of facts and testimonies (and sometimes more-or-less propagandistic agitprop content) about post-war Argentinean politics, the rise of Juan Perón and the subsequent coup against him. If you’re not familiar with the events (as I am not) it can sometimes be a little difficult to follow, but the documentary footage, archival clips and supporting material from other “Third World” conflicts is joined by large amounts of textual quotes — alternately printed, flashed, zoomed into, or printed character-by-character on screen, to keep one’s attention presumably. It’s exhaustive, and it never quite seems to find a place to finish, but it’s a model of filmmaking that would have great impact on revolutionary modes of presentation, and still exerts its own fascination now.

Film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas; Cinematographers Juan Carlos Desanzo and Solanas; Length 260 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 13 May 2018.

Three Films by Lee Man-hee: The Marines Who Never Returned (1963), A Day Off (1968) and Assassin (1969)

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.

Continue reading “Three Films by Lee Man-hee: The Marines Who Never Returned (1963), A Day Off (1968) and Assassin (1969)”

Criterion Sunday 252: Faces (1968)

This is in some ways the ur-Cassavetes picture, which came after a few unsuccessful studio pictures in the early-60s as a return to the improvisational quality of Shadows, not to mention developing the verité-style black-and-white high-contrast camerawork into a grander form. Although it was all scripted, it does still feel like the actors are using the script as a means to finding the emotion, and that’s what Cassavetes is ultimately most interested in, those unforced moments of feeling that come through in the actors’ performances. Frequently the scenes as written feel rambling or unfocused, and often the actors are playing drunk, which doesn’t always pay off, but it captures something that a lot of cinema wasn’t doing in the US of the 1960s (Bergman is namechecked within the film, and that feels like a more fair comparison point). Thus, for all that it’s a film about an older man confronting mortality and a fairly unremarkable working life, as well as people trapped somewhat in the past, it also feels quite fresh and honest in a way.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • As with most of Cassavetes’ films, there are multiple versions that exist. The original cut was around three hours, and there was also a 147 minute cut, from which 18 minutes of an introduction feature here as an extra.
  • Making ‘Faces’ (2004) is a fairly standard making-of Criterion extra, which is structured around interviews with four key members of the production who were still alive: the cameraman/editor Al Ruban, and actors Gena Rowlands, Seymour Cassel and Lynn Carlin. All of them provide stories from the film’s set that suggest Cassavetes’ methods, how he helped actors to find the performance, as well as the way his artistic direction manifested itself (he wanted actors to find their own way into the characters, rather than providing notes, as one example). Al Ruban (the cinematographer and editor) expands on some of the technical challenges, such as finding all the sound was un-synched at the end, or having too few lights to film the big club scenes.
  • Ruban also contributes a separate 12-minute extra just about his choice of film stock and lighting for the film’s relatively restrained number of locations, which is probably more for those with an interest in lighting.
  • Finally, there’s a two-part interview for the French TV series Cinéastes de notre temps, conducted during the making of and after the release of Faces. We get much of his credo and philosophy of filmmaking — and one which has informed a lot of independent cinema ever since: the idea that even if you don’t have any money, you should go out and make your vision, in the hope that at least someone will share your passion somewhere down the line. Cassavetes comes across as supremely relaxed and chatty in the first part, filmed presumably in some manic period during production, as he paces around his offices and home, and introduces the people around him, all bonhomie and gregarious host, which the filmmakers cannily intercut with footage of laughter and joviality in the film he’s made, suggesting the direct line from his lived experience to his art.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes; Cinematographer Al Ruban; Starring John Marley, Gena Rowlands, Lynn Carlin, Seymour Cassel; Length 130 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 8 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 1999, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Monday 27 May 2019).