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.
So, the year is 1974, which you may have caught from the title of my post (given that the year is in the title of the film and I’m not about to change now the format by which I title my posts, it ends up being repeated quite a few times). Anyway this is a rather disturbing documentary in some ways, being largely about the filmmaker himself, a self-critique of sorts, though whether it’s justified on those grounds is probably up to successive generations of film students. It also has the most unvarnished depiction of childbirth since Stan Brakhage’s short film Window Water Baby Moving.
A fascinating documentary directed by Kazuo Hara about his former wife Takeda Miyuki, who has left him to live in Okinawa with their son and who gives birth to another in the course of the film — though describing it that way is to almost completely elide what makes the film interesting, which itself is an utterly inadequate adjective. I’d say it’s more about the artist as pathetic loser, chasing after a woman who openly spurns him (his justification for making the film is after all to maintain a sliver of a relationship to her). Every so often we hear his rejoinders to her taunts (that he’s actually “sensitive”) and he stages a particularly bravura intervention on the voiceover during Miyuki’s childbirth, in which he confesses to being so nervous that he was breaking out in sweats and ‘forgot’ to fix the focus on what is, even in its blurry state, a graphic depiction of childbirth, for the entirety of which Hara’s current wife is seen holding a microphone towards Miyuki to catch her reactions, while precisely nobody helps her at any point, even when the baby is flopped on the floor and her leg is caught in the umbilical cord while trying to squeeze out the placenta. Questions of ethics in documentary filmmaking cannot really be avoided here — Hara even shows himself having sex with Miyuki at one point — and it feels like a portrait of a woman who seems out of step with mainstream Japanese femininity wrapped up as self-critique.
Director/Cinematographer Kazuo Hara 原一男; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Saturday 21 September 2019.
I’ve long wanted to watch this highly-regarded blend of documentary and drama by Sara Gómez, a Cuban filmmaker who died at the age of 31 in 1974 before it was completed (it was finished by her collaborators and released some years later), which has been particularly championed by the critic and feminist B. Ruby Rich. However, I got tired to waiting for a restoration (I don’t believe it’s had one, but I may be mistaken) or a cinematic screening so I took to YouTube, where one can find all kinds of marginalia and, so it seems, underseen classics.
Plenty of documentary films now take a self-aware and critical perspective on their own praxis, and it may not have been new in 1974 either when Sara Gomez shot this film, but what distinguishes De cierta manera is an energy undoubtedly harnessing Cuba’s own revolutionary project. Mixing voiceover-led ‘objective’ documentary elements, with vérité sequences shot on streets, but interleaving acted scenes, combining the actors (as fictional characters) with non-actors in unscripted sequences, as well as interpolating musical performance, this is a bold film. It’s about a slum area rebuilt by the government to improve the lives of the marginalised and impoverished communities of colour living there, and expands on this by its staging of a relationship between teacher Yolanda (Cuellar) and worker Mario (Balmaseda), who still clings to a certain machismo but is conscientious in his commitment to revolutionary work, unlike his colleague Humberto. Their story plays out in snippets against the backdrop of the community, its meetings and its daily life, as the film’s narrational strategies fold in class, race and sex as contested sites within the revolution. It’s a minor miracle of a film and it’s not best served by its own marginalisation to a poor 16mm dupe on YouTube. Hopefully someone does a proper restoration and release in future.
Director Sara Gómez [sometimes also credited to Tomás González Pérez]; Writers Gómez, Julio García Espinosa and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea; Cinematographer Luis García; Starring Mario Balmaseda, Yolanda Cuellar; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Thursday 19 January 2017.
One of Buñuel’s typically absurdist late films, which narratively careens from one character to another almost randomly (like Linklater’s Slacker), a series of brief skits which fundamentally question the meaning we ascribe to narratives by constantly bamboozling one’s expectations. It may be one of his greatest films in fact, although the experience of watching it can necessarily be a little bit confounding, as familiar targets are satirised — like the bourgeoisie (sitting down to go to the toilet together), the police (the commissioner with his fixation on his sister, or the cadets being taught about polyamory in a class setting), men of religion (drinking and gambling in an inn), and just the general slew of human perversions and vices. There are some hilarious individual episodes as well as others which seem somewhat more of their time, but Buñuel stays above the fray dispassionately observing these foibles.
- The only significant extra is a short video introduction by the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière which sets up some of the ideas he and Buñuel were playing with in the film.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel; Writers Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière; Cinematographer Edmond Richard; Starring Julien Bertheau, Jean-Claude Brialy, Michael Lonsdale, Michel Piccoli, Jean Rochefort, Monica Vitti; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 7 June 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 9 February 2020).
An early feature film from Lino Brocka, who would go on to direct some of the Philippines’ best-known films Manila in the Claws of Light (1975) and Insiang (1976). He grapples here with society’s hypocrisy and maltreatment of those who are the most vulnerable. If his compassionate conclusion is specifically rooted in Christianity, nevertheless it’s a feeling that speaks to many societies, and one can only hope it someday receives proper restoration (like those other films, which are on the Criterion Collection).
There’s something in this film that reminds me a little of classic melodramas (for example, from the golden age of Mexican cinema), possibly because of its characters, who conform to certain types found in these films. The style is also quite simple (not simplistic) yet expressive in the way it presents the moral quandaries for the central characters, who are the young man Junior (Christopher de Leon) and the town outcast Kuala (Lolita Rodriguez), who is treated abysmally by the people of the village for her perceived simplicity. Junior initially is part of mobs of braying fiends, pushing her and the town’s leper (Mario O’Hara), by virtue of necessity, into one another’s arms, but eventually Junior reassesses his life’s choices and finds sympathy for the outcasts. It’s no surprise that in such a Catholic country, and with the film set in a deeply Catholic village, that this choice should be framed so explicitly in terms of Christ, and the final scene makes this symbolism fairly clear. It’s a film with a great depth of religious feeling and the compassion rooted in that, while keen to expose the hypocrisies of those, and made at the time it was, it’s difficult too to avoid linking this to the Marcos regime. The DVD I saw had the best available print, but you get the real sense of the lack of funds in the Philippines for film restoration and preservation — the first few scenes are shockingly poorly preserved, though the bulk of the film looks fine — which is a real shame, given the quality of so many filmmakers in this country.
Director Lino Brocka; Writers Brocka and Mario O’Hara; Cinematographer Jose Batac; Starring Lolita Rodriguez, Christopher de Leon, Mario O’Hara, Eddie Garcia; Length 128 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 5 June 2019.
Mauritanian filmmaker Med Hondo’s Soleil Ô (1967) received a recent restoration courtesy of Il Cinema Ritrovato and Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. Another film of his (not yet restored) screened in this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato and exemplifies a more confrontational attitude towards the colonialist past and the challenges of filmmaking on the continent.
With an undoubtedly confrontational title (there are several English renditions of it, but I’m not going to provide any of them here), this politically-engaged piece of post-68 anti-colonialist filmmaking from Med Hondo is very much interested in confronting a legacy of colonialism in Africa. After all, it starts with a lengthy address direct to camera on the necessity of finding a means for an African cinema freed from the demands of Western capital and cultural production. There follow a series of illustrative scenes that unveil the corruption wrought by capital, the methods of control exercised by the colonialist oppressors, a folky anti-racist song about one’s Black and Arab neighbours (which is, more or less, the meaning of the film’s title), a bit of Gilliamesque animation, dialogues with workers about socialism, a sequence highlighting the racism ingrained even in sex work, and some earnest lectures, complete with charts and graphics, on the economics of exploitation. It ends with a group of people in a room festooned with the posters of the kinds of African films that presumably Med Hondo would highlight as exemplars (including his own, even a poster for the one we’re watching), and now I want to see all of them. This isn’t always an easy watch — it’s hardly intended to be (and indeed there’s a longer three-hour cut apparently) — but it comes directly from a spirit of the times, recalling contemporary works like Argentina’s La hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1968).
Director/Writer Med Hondo ميد هوندو; Cinematographers Jean Boffety and François Catonné; Length 100 minutes [French version].
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Monday 24 June 2019.
In my ongoing Criterion watching project, I stalled a bit before this film. I’d seen it before, and I’d rated it highly, but it’s one of those films that you need to take a big breath and a bit of time before you launch yourself into it because it is unrelenting. It’s not bleak exactly, but it’s exhausting because Gena Rowlands — who utterly dominates the film — just fills every empty space with her presence. She’s Mabel, the mother to three kids, and the wife to Peter Falk’s construction engineer Nick (or some kind of municipal worker), and if the way I’m defining her life seems a little regressive, well that’s the world of the film, and it’s strongly implied that part of her problem is the way that she has been pushed into this role, and the way she comes apart at the seams trying to live up to expectations made of her. That’s also partly why it’s so heartbreaking, because although she’s clearly become unhinged, it’s Nick who’s the bully and the bad person. He can be sweet and understanding at times, but every time he loses control of Mabel, he starts shouting and gets pushy and violent, and the kids, who are there most of the time, can’t do much about it. Cassavetes keeps the camera tight in on them for much of the film, only at the end disappearing behind a closed curtain as he leaves them. It’s a film of towering acting performances, not least from Rowlands, although Falk is also on brilliant form. There are these characters around the edges (parents, kids, co-workers of Nick’s), who feel almost like non-actors and perhaps they are, but for all its age, it feels continually fresh and perceptive about its characters, and about mental health.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes; Cinematographers Al Ruban and Mitch Breit; Starring Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk; Length 147 minutes.
Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 12 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 2000, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Thursday 4 July 2019).
It’s such a simple setup really: an older woman falls for a younger man, an immigrant to her country (although she herself is the daughter of a foreigner, as her neighbours are quick to note to one another), and is thus swiftly ostracised by everyone around her. However, it’s remarkable how many ways Fassbinder finds to approach this. As a starting point, it’s a story set in post-War Germany about how easy it is to fall into a judgement of outsiders, but it’s also a story of the ambiguous relationship between class and race (Emmi herself is a cleaner, but society already values her whiteness more). This latter concept then gets bundled up into a critique of capitalism, as tolerance fights against and is then co-opted by market needs. It’s a story of family tensions, which is where All That Heaven Allows enters the (TV) picture. It’s even a story of food as a locus of intercultural engagement and tension (couscous gets a pretty prominent role, and the local grocer is a key part of Emmi’s ostracism). And then when things seem to be lightening for the two, we realise that Emmi is unthinkingly being pushed into the behaviour she had so despised in others earlier on, thus so easily becoming once again part of multiple systems of oppression that, so briefly, she had shockingly been made to confront herself. But, at its heart, it still remains such a simple story and that’s where its power lies.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Cinematographer Jürgen Jürges; Starring Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem الهادي بن سالم, Irm Hermann, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Barbara Valentin; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 9 May 2001 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1998 and at university, Wellington, March 2000, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 11 February 2018).
This compendium of short films by the American experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage spans the range of his life, from his earliest works to after his diagnosis with the cancer which would claim his life in 2003. It was joined by a second volume some years later (as spine numbers 517 and 518), meaning this early instalment was retrospectively retitled as “Volume One” at that time. I present thoughts on some of the films below.
Desistfilm (1954) is my introduction to Brakhage’s work, like some kind of hepped-up beatnik film about a house party set to a hard-edged droning soundtrack, as people’s relationships break down. Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959) takes glimpses of early married life, but edits them together with fades to black in flickering light and comes across as nothing so much as a Lynchian dystopia of nightmares, with negative-image graphic sex interpolated. It doesn’t exactly paint a pleasant portrait of marriage.
Brakhage’s most famous work, though, probably remains Dog Star Man, made in four parts with a prelude (so: five separate short films). As a whole it’s a fevered rush of images, or at least that’s the sense that Part IV conjures, though the Prelude sets up the basic imagery of the title, where the “man” is both Brakhage himself, and also his newborn baby, and the “star” seems more like a solar plexus of body imagery and film manipulation effects. It’s all quite affecting in its way, but perplexing too. Part I has the most sustained sense of narrative, as Brakhage journeys futilely up (or along, depending on the camera angle) a snowy slope like a deranged Sisyphean hunter figure with his dog. Part II introduces the baby imagery more fully, with this and the remaining parts being relatively shorter.
Possibly the most distinctive film, both integrated into his oeuvre but also standing apart by virtue of its extreme subject matter, is The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971). I don’t really know how to ‘rate’ this, but for all that the subject matter may be gruesome (footage taken during actual autopsies), I found it difficult to take my eyes off the screen, because to do so would seem somehow disrespectful to what Brakhage is filming here: the very substance of physical being itself. I suppose at a metaphorical level this could be construed as another film about the technical aspects of filmmaking — editing and deconstructing — but yet it’s really, really not: it’s the literalisation of some kind of metaphysical consciousness that doesn’t simply reduce once-living beings to cadavers, but finds some kind of transcendent purity in our essential form. This is supported by the formal means Brakhage uses, the occasionally occluded camera angles, the complete lack of sound, the structure moving us gently from coroners measuring things into the more macabre material. I wouldn’t call it disturbing exactly, though not everyone would wish to sit through it, but it certainly makes all other filmed images seem a little unnecessary.
At the other end of the spectrum of life, Window Water Baby Moving (1959) films Brakhage’s wife giving birth to their baby daughter (or is that a spoiler?). It has a lyrical quality to it, to the colours and textures, that carries it through the bloody and painful aspects of what’s taking place, seeming to communicate at least something of what’s special to it. From the same year, Cat’s Cradle is riven with blood red textures, of sensuality perhaps or something more eerie… and a cat. Family figures in a later film, Kindering (1987), in which odd contorted images of children playing in their backyard create a strange, slightly creepy effect. With I… Dreaming (1988), he again hints at a dark loneliness, something that seems to have been taken up by Lynch when I think about the spaces of void (or I believe that’s the word he writes most often over his film here), but it doesn’t entirely work for me.
There are a few films which continue to explore the textures of filmed matter. In Mothlight (1963), the light of the camera passes directly through the biological material of a moth and its world, creating patterns and textures directly on the film. Returning to similar ideas, The Garden of Earthly Delights uses plant ephemera, and sort of achieves something of the same effect.
Sometimes the experimentalism of Brakhage’s films comes from the sense of the editing, but in The Wold Shadow (1972), it feels more like he’s experimenting with effects in the camera, or using a static image of trees in a forest as a base for improvisation on the theme of colour and light. It’s fascinating. More perplexing is The Stars Are Beautiful (1981), in which Brakhage recounts various creation myths relating to the stars, while his children (I am guessing) clip a chicken’s wings. I guess those birds won’t be getting anywhere near the stars.
There are also a large number of colour films, painted and collaged, but the first on the set (1987’s The Dante Quartet) isn’t my favourite. However, it has (unsurprisingly, Dante-esque) headings to its sections. Somewhat a precursor to that is Night Music (1986), thirty seconds of colour, big and bold. Meanwhile, the colours just seem a little more dissipated in Glaze of Cathexis (1990), though it’s the film of his which sounds most like the name of a black metal band (yes, it turns out someone has taken it for such), while Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1990) sounds like the title of that band’s first album. Once again, it does some lovely things with colour and light, as you’d expect. A few years later, Study in Color and Black and White (1993) is more dark than colour, more black than white.
Having watched a series of Brakhage’s short experiments with light and colour hand-painted directly onto film, the 10+ minute running length of Untitled (For Marilyn) (1992) suggests it might somehow be wearyingly epic by comparison, and yet this ended up being the one I most loved (alongside Lovesong). It has the textures, the colours, the feeling. It’s the whole package, and is dedicated to his wife. Black Ice (1994) is another of his films which, when watched alongside some sludgy doomy metal (as I was doing, given most of these films are silent), starts to feel like a crack in the cosmos, through which snippets of light and colour seem to make their way. Cosmic shapes appear in Stellar (1993) as well, extensions of Brakhage’s work with painting on film, and perhaps these are just suggested by the title, but there is a sort of harmony of the spheres to it all.
In Crack Glass Eulogy (1991), after a long run of his colour and light films, seeing filmed images seems rather a novelty. It has a spare, haunting, elegiac quality, like night vision, like surveillance. By the end of the decade, though, in The Dark Tower (1999), the darkness threatens to overwhelm everything else, perhaps suggestive of his failing vision. Likewise Comingled Containers (1996, which Criterion’s sleeve notes correct to “commingled”) feels like a blend of photography (water imagery) and the filmmaker’s manipulations of light and colour in a way that is rather more productive than some of Brakhage’s other works, but with a similar undertow of darkness.
The final film on the set is the most recent one, Lovesong (2001), made only a couple of years before Brakhage’s death from cancer. What I like most about this film is that it feels like a pure expression of paint on film. It seems so fresh, wet and glistening on the surface of the celluloid. It’s a film that has hundreds if not thousands of individual artworks, any one of which could be framed, but together seem beautiful and mysterious, like so much of Brakhage’s work.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Cinematography Stan Brakhage.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 February, Sunday 4 March and Sunday 11 March 2018.
The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971) | Length 32 minutes [Rosenbaum 1000]
Cat’s Cradle (1959) | Length 7 minutes.
Window Water Baby Moving (1959) | Length 13 minutes.
Mothlight (1963) | Length 4 minutes.
Eye Myth (1967) | Length 1 minute.
The Wold Shadow (1972) | Length 3 minutes.
The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981) | Length 2 minutes.
The Stars Are Beautiful (1974) | Length 19 minutes.
Glaze of Cathexis (1990) | Length 3 minutes.
Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1990) | Length 9 minutes.
Untitled (For Marilyn) (1992) | Length 11 minutes.
Black Ice (1994) | Length 2 minutes.
Study in Color and Black and White (1993) | Length 2 minutes.
Stellar (1993) | Length 3 minutes.
Crack Glass Eulogy (1991) | Length 7 minutes.
The Dark Tower (1999) | Length 3 minutes.
Comingled Containers (1996) | Length 3 minutes.
Lovesong (2001) | Length 11 minutes.
Undoubtedly this is a powerful piece of filmmaking about a war (the Vietnam War), though its lessons can be applied to many subsequent conflicts. To see former generals note that the strategy of continuing a war that killed so many people barely had any effect on the resolve of the native people to keep fighting against the foreign incursion is surely something that should have been remembered after 2001 as well, but the nature of modern warfare — the way it is played out in the media, the access they are given — has fundamentally changed. There are sequences here that are scarcely believable, like the soldiers filmed joking with each other while with respective women at a brothel. But there are other sequences — interviews with veterans, generals and politicians alike — that shed light on the attitudes that went into the war: a desperate desire to hold onto resources, and to keep face with allies even as the philosophy that propelled them to intervene (the Domino Theory about the spread of Communism) was largely debunked. The filmmaker here uses all the now familiar techniques of cannily editing footage to prove the institutional lies of the American forces, as well as occasional editorial asides that almost joke with the audience (a father who’s lost a son hymning the leadership of Nixon while a subtitle pops up at just this point to say “filmed in early 1973”). It remains a relevant film and an excellent one, for all the bias one might accuse it of, not least for the interview with the bomber pilot that runs through and concludes the film, which is beautifully poignant and powerful.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Peter Davis; Cinematographer Richard Pearce; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 May 2017.