Criterion Sunday 609: ¡Alambrista! (aka The Ilegal, 1977)

For all that this is from a different era of filmmaking — when earnest, socially engaged white men made films about the immigrant and Black experience (the director of this film was also writer and cinematographer for the excellent 1964 Nothing But a Man) — this also feels like a prescient film, and a contemporary one too. It’s about a young Mexican man who goes to America to get work to help feed his family, and there becomes entangled with forces intent on preventing him from working, cops and traffickers (including a memorable small role for Ned Beatty) and such. It’s a film that without making any grand speeches, eloquently lays bare the way that migrant workers (who may have illegally entered but are so clearly necessary for many industries) are treated and the lack of rights afforded to them. At some point, these kinds of stories became less trendy to depict, perhaps, and nowadays the creative talent behind the cameras would likely have the personal experiences of those on screen, but this is a fantastic bit of engaged 1970s filmmaking that deserves a wider audience. It must surely be one of the more overlooked standalone Criterion titles.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert M. Young; Cinematographer Tom Hurwitz and Young; Starring Domingo Ambriz, Trinidad Silva, Linda Gillen, Ned Beatty; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 21 January 2023.

Criterion Sunday 539: ハウス Hausu (House, 1977)

This batty 70s Japanese jokey horror film certainly has its defenders and its detractors, and I imagine it’s as much for its off-the-wall anarchic style as anything else, but whatever it really all amounts to — and I’m not sure what that may be, exactly — it’s at least plenty of fun. Indeed at its heart its a generic exploitation movie, in which a group of teenage girls go to one’s aunt’s house only to find it’s haunted, as they get picked off by a mysterious killer (possibly a cat) one by one. But there is no way that a mere summary of what happens could convey quite how batty the whole thing is, the way it’s put together and edited, the constant shots pulling us out of reality into some other dimension that’s somewhere between a musical and a kids’ show in aesthetics. Ultimately that makes it a lot less horrific for me — there’s no real scares — but then again it plays more as a comedy in some ways. Hyperactive of course, and a sub-90 minute runtime is crucial there, but silly fun.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nobuhiko Obayashi 大林宣彦; Writer Chiho Katsura 桂千穂; Cinematographer Yoshitaka Sakamoto 阪本善尚; Starring Kimiko Ikegami 池上季実子, Miki Jinbo 神保美喜, Ai Matsubara 松原愛, Kumiko Oba 大場久美子; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 22 May 2022.

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.

De cierta manera (One Way or Another, 1977)

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.

One Way or Another film posterCREDITS
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.

Two Early Films by Agnieszka Holland: Screen Tests (1977) and Provincial Actors (1979)

With Agnieszka Holland’s newest film out in cinemas (I don’t imagine many of them) tomorrow, now seems like a good time to look back at two of her earliest films made in Poland, both of which deal with actors and (more in the latter film) their relationship to their directors. Both make for interesting portraits of the professional work of actors, not to mention a turbulent era in the country’s history.

Continue reading “Two Early Films by Agnieszka Holland: Screen Tests (1977) and Provincial Actors (1979)”

Some Films by Women of the LA Rebellion

The so-called “LA Rebellion” was a movement of sorts that arose amongst African-American filmmakers enrolled at UCLA’s School of Film, Theatre and Television in the 1970s, in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and US involvement in the Vietnam War. Their work was challenging the mainstream cinema, which certainly at that time — and you could make an argument for even now — remained a largely closed industry, in the process expanding the range of visual representations of the Black experience in the United States. The most well-known filmmakers to come from this movement remain the men: Charles Burnett and Haile Gerima, most notably. However, there were also a large number of women making films within this movement, some of whom would go on to work elsewhere in the film industry, but none of whom were ever given much of a chance beyond the film school.

Probably the best known of the women associated with the LA Rebellion has been Julie Dash, whose 1991 film Daughters of the Dust may be the single work most associated with the movement, but even she was not given the chance to direct many films (aside from some made-for-TV films). One of her earliest works is the short dance film Four Women (1975), which may be seven minutes of interpretative dance, but there’s beauty and grace, fabric and texture, hair and body, power and defiance in this dance, and in the Nina Simone song that soundtracks it. She followed it a couple of years later with Diary of an African Nun (1977, pictured above), which has a beautiful quality even in the imperfect decaying 8mm grain as it survives in a restored (as much as possible) print. Based on a story by Alice Walker, the film has a dreamy poetic quality that appears as if through a haze, with its central character finding it difficult to reconcile herself to her religious calling. Probably her finest film prior to Daughters is Illusions (1982, pictured at the top of this post), which may be little more than half an hour, but packs a lot into its World War II-era story of Mignon (Lonette McKee), a woman passing for white in a film studio’s production office. Mignon meets a darker-skinned woman employed to dub white women’s vocals in the pictures. The film nimbly enacts the way that race is deployed and erased, sometimes literally (here represented by an army censor), as well as the complex interactions between representation and reality. Plus, it’s beautifully shot and acted.

Another key figure in the movement is Alile Sharon Larkin, who has spent most of her career as an educator, with scandalously few directing credits. Her first student film was The Kitchen (1975), which touches on issues that are still very present and relevant in our own day — topics, indeed, that dominate a lot of the discourse I see online about the treament of women (particularly Black women and other women of colour). In this film, for example, there’s a sense that Black women are put in institutions and stigmatised with mental health issues for being different within mainstream white society. There’s a lot of play with hair in that respect, and the main character seems to be traumatised by memories of her natural hair being tortured into place with red hot irons, which leads to her donning a wig, directly linked to her being placed into care. These themes are undoubtedly even more visceral to those who live within these beauty constraints, and despite being under seven minutes in length, Larkin’s film captures this well. Like Dash, Larkin went on to make a longer work a few years later with A Different Image (1982, pictured above). There’s a certain earnestness, perhaps borne of the era in which it was made or the seriousness of its intentions, but this is an affecting 50-minute drama about the way that sexualised images in the environment affect socialisation between men and women. The film is never heavy-handed in the way it deploys this theme, with passing images contextualised by the men looking at them — at first, easy to laugh off, like a young boy laughing at the sight of our leading lady’s underwear, or her (male) work colleague’s interactions with another of his friends (who ostentatiously reads Playboy and wants to know if his friend has got some action yet). Progressively these become darker and more troubling, and the film continues to hint at an inability of men to see beyond women’s sexual attributes. It’s nicely acted and well shot by Charles Burnett.

Another woman within the LA Rebellion is Barbara McCullough, who went on to a career as a production manager (particularly within visual effects), a little older than some of her contemporaries, but who made a number of short films at the time. The one I’ve seen is Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification (1979). There’s real beauty to this short experimental film, beautifully restored on 35mm, as a woman interacts with a sparse, impoverished environment. It’s all fairly oblique but ends in an act of purifying defiance.

Among the lesser-known figures was Anita W. Addison, who went on to direct TV shows in the 1990s as well as getting involved in production, but who died in 2004. I’m not clear if her short film Eva’s Man (1976) was made under the auspices of UCLA, but her name is linked with the LA Rebellion (at least on the Wikipedia page). Her film obliquely tells the story of a woman who kills her husband, with flashbacks to give a sense of why she might have done it, and sustains a nice claustrophobic atmosphere with a bit of free jazz on the soundtrack.

One final filmmaker I wanted to mention is Malvonna Bellenger, who later worked in local television and the recording industry, and who died from breast cancer in 2003. Her short film Rain (Nyesha) (1978) is ostensibly about a rainy LA day, though it’s not exactly about rain per se. Instead it’s about the possibility of a change coming, washing things away that existed before. And it’s about a young woman who seems from her voiceover to be disconsolate who finds herself becoming more certain as the rain comes down and Coltrane plays in the background. It finds its tone somewhere between elegiac and active, and it sticks to it.

Continue reading “Some Films by Women of the LA Rebellion”

Suspiria (1977)

I only started watching ‘giallo’ films a few years ago, that peculiar hyper-stylised Italian sub-genre of horror, and among those first three was Dario Argento’s Profondo rosso (1975). I’ve watched only a few from the genre since then, like Femina ridens (1969) and All the Colors of the Dark (1972), but they’ve all offered fascinating little glimpses into an alternate world of filmmaking. Finally, I managed to catch up on Argento’s most famous film, recently remade by Luca Guadagnino (though I haven’t yet seen the remake, and may not ever bother).


One of the taglines for this film is “The most frightening film you’ll ever see!” and I should point out right away that this isn’t quite true: part of what Argento seems to be doing here rather undercuts the scariness. There’s terror and horror and gore, but the use of colours and sound, the heightened acting (a nice way of saying it’s pretty ropey), the whole Grand Guignol nature of the enterprise, somewhat mitigates against the scares. Still, what colours! What sound! The score by Goblin is just fantastic, ultra-70s electronica, and combined with the deeply saturated colours, it makes the film that much more immersive. From the very opening scenes, the tone starts out at hysterical turned up to 11, and then… it just cranks it up ever more. The witches’ coven/German dance school conceit suggests deeper tensions within society that remain allegorical (I believe these are made more concrete in the remake), and while I may remain unconvinced by the acting, it’s some kind of a film.

Suspiria posterCREDITS
Director Dario Argento; Writers Argento and Daria Nicolodi (based on the essay “Suspiria de Profundis” by Thomas De Quincey); Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli; Starring Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Alida Valli; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Sunday 9 December 2018.

Films by Moustapha Alassane: Return of an Adventurer (1966) and Two Short Films

My themed week of African cinema has seen a lot of strategies for dealing with post-colonial issues, but Nigerien (that is, from Niger) filmmaker Moustapha Alassane used the generic codes of that most American of genres, the western, to critique Western involvement in Africa. It’s witty and never outstays its welcome. Equally amusing are his shorter, animated films, most of all the glorious Kokoa (which may have been made in the 1980s, though most resources list its year of production as 2001). Needless to say, Niger isn’t currently one of the most highly-developed film-producing nations in Africa, although Wikipedia relates that it was once far more productive, with the ethnographer Jean Rouch being heavily involved in work there, followed by a number of native-born directors. Production in the last few decades has dwindled, although at a recent London Film Festival, I did see The Wedding Ring (2016) by a woman director, Rahmatou Keïta.

Continue reading “Films by Moustapha Alassane: Return of an Adventurer (1966) and Two Short Films”

Criterion Sunday 255: Opening Night (1977)

Coming the year after The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, this could be construed as another film about Cassavetes’ relationship to art and artistic practice — and that is certainly a major element in it — but after the very masculine energy of the previous film, this one refocuses the story once again on Gena Rowlands and becomes about her character Myrtle’s (not-entirely-)self-destruction. By that I mean that she, as a celebrated theatre actor, has the adulation and the awards, but she also has a coterie of people around her who are only too happy to enable her in her downward spiral, just so long as they can make some money off her along the way. Her trajectory is triggered by the death of a young fan, whose presence comes back to haunt her throughout, which gets her to contemplating her own mortality and ageing, and perhaps it’s also a little to do with having to perform boring bourgeois plays about families and relationships (which she doesn’t really have in the same way). Maybe that last one is my misreading, but Myrtle’s erratic behaviour (brought on by the way she’s constantly pushed by those around her) leads her to ditch much of the text of the play she’s in, during its small-town off-Broadway run, such that by the Broadway opening night of the title she and Cassavetes are riffing on something completely different (to the irritation of the playwright, the legendary Joan Blondell). This sequence is largely improvised, and it’s unclear to me whether we’re supposed to take it as a swipe at how theatre audiences will laugh at any old nonsense, or about how much the actors react against the original text, or just about a person breaking down and opening themselves up, but in any case it’s a potent story about the price of art.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Ben Gazzara speaks to Gena Rowlands at her home in the mid-2000s, discussing the film’s themes, the other actors, how it was made, and how annoyed Cassavetes got at being called an auteur. There’s another short piece where DoP/producer Al Ruban speaks about making the film and the way he talks about Cassavetes does sort of fit that description, but then there’s a lot about the way he specifically collaborated on his creations.
  • There are two fairly straightforward trailers that lean heavily on footage from the final performance of the play-within-the-film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes; Cinematographer Al Ruban; Starring Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Joan Blondell, John Cassavetes; Length 144 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 15 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 2001, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Friday 12 July 2019).

Criterion Sunday 230: 3 Women (1977)

While I like a lot of what Ingmar Bergman has created (and feel equally frustrated by a lot of what’s within his work), I do not like his influence in cinema, which seemed particularly prevalent amongst American filmmakers in the 1970s. Bergman, it seems to me, was every bit as patchy as Robert Altman has been in his career, and this film — an avowedly dream-based rendering of relationships amongst three women (well, primarily two really: Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall) seemingly inspired by some kind of Bergmanesque mood of Scandinavian disaffection, as well as psychoanalytic ideas — feels like a copy. A lot of people seem to love it, but I can’t find much to love really, but they seem to be tapping into an emotional range that I think would take me more processing to grasp. The performances are great, but the core relationships seem indebted to over-familiar mother/whore dichotomies, and the alienating score is (perhaps appropriately, of course) suffocating.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert Altman; Cinematographer Chuck Roscher; Starring Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Janice Rule; Length 124 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 November 2018.